Two LTU professors win $447,000 NIH grant to find safer plastics

SOUTHFIELD—Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, has been used since the 1950s to produce strong and resilient plastics, for everything from eyeglasses to food packaging and home kitchen use.

A model of the BPA molecule. LTU graphic.

But a growing body of scientific evidence shows that BPA, which mimics the effect of estrogen in the body, affects the development of reproductive tissues, and could increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects. Some studies have also shown links to diabetes and heart disease. Efforts to find alternatives have so far resulted in molecules with similarly negative impacts on human health.

Now, Lawrence Technological University has received a $446,867 grant from the National Institutes of Health to create close chemical cousins of BPA and plans to test these derivatives on laboratory worms in hopes of finding a molecule that’s less toxic.

Principal investigator Shannon Timmons, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and an associate professor of chemistry, said her undergraduate students will work in the lab to create new “bisphenol analogues, similar in structure to BPA but a little bit different.”

The BPA molecule is constructed of two six-membered rings of carbon atoms with various hydrogen and oxygen atoms attached. Her students will work to change the atoms attached to the rings, using atoms such as bromine and fluorine, to create novel bisphenol structures.

The C. elegans worm under a microscope. LTU photo.

Then, principal investigator Aleksandra Kuzmanov, an assistant professor of biology, will test these bisphenol analogues for toxicity, using a tiny worm called Caenorhabditis elegans.

Kuzmanov said C. elegans is being used as a test animal because it’s inexpensive, reproduces quickly—allowing  toxicity assays to be completed in a short period of time—and most importantly, because it responds to toxic substances in a manner very similar to humans.

Any bisphenol analogues showing low or no risk to reproduction in C. elegans will be further evaluated for their endocrine-disrupting properties using a validated human cell-based assay.

Timmons and Kuzmanov said LTU received the grant funding on Friday, Feb. 23 and undergraduate students are already at work in the university’s research laboratories on the project. The project is scheduled to continue until January 2027.

An LTU student in the lab. LTU photo.

The desired outcome of the project is a BPA alternative with little or no reproductive toxicity effects—while retaining the physical properties necessary for use in plastics.

Lawrence Technological University is one of only 13 private, technological, comprehensive doctoral universities in the United States. Located in Southfield, Mich., LTU was founded in 1932 and offers more than 100 programs through its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, Engineering, and Health Sciences, as well as Specs@LTU as part of its growing Center for Professional Development. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for alumni salaries. Forbes and The Wall Street Journal rank LTU among the nation’s top 10 percent. U.S. News and World Report list it in the top tier of the best Midwest colleges. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.

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