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UAMS study to look at effects of exposure to arsenic in male infertility

University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences UAMS
A team of researchers from UAMS will use genetic sequencing technology to test the impact of exposure to arsenic.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of exposure to arsenic in male infertility.

Arsenic exposure can happen in a variety of ways and researchers will look at whether that can cause poor sperm quality. About one-third of infertility cases are caused by male reproductive issues, one-third by female reproductive issues and the remaining one-third by male and female issues or unknown factors, UAMS reported.

Arsenic impacts a key regulator in sperm called small RNA. A team of researchers will use genetic sequencing technology to test exposure on mice. It’s believed that even a small amount of exposure could have health consequences that can last for generations.

The study is being co-led by Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., who is vice chancellor for research and innovation and a professor in UAMS’ College of Medicine Deparatment of Pharmacology and Toxicology. She spoke with KUAR News about what’s being planned.

Below is a transcript of the edited interview that was broadcast.

SHUK-MEI HO: Arsenic is naturally present in the soil, sometimes in the rocks and oftentimes is in well water, especially in places where we don't have municipal water, then arsenic levels are not checked. So, arsenic is very important in that way.

The other issue is that in this region, we actually produce approximately 49% of all the rice that are consumed by the U.S. population. And going back in many decades, we understand that the cotton industry is the predominant crop here. And during that time the fertilizer, the pesticides, the herbicides, some of them contain pretty high levels of arsenic. So that's another level of exposure.

The most important question is the health of the person. Is it acquired from the genetics of the parents or is it acquired by nature, like, for example, the environment, the lifestyles our parents live? 99% of the time we think about what is happening when we were in the womb, like, for example, in the mom's womb and perhaps influenced by her diet, perhaps influenced by her lifestyle habits and her exposure.

Relatively few people are thinking, what about the father's [lifestyle habits]? Do I have to kind of worry about my father's exposure ad how would that affect me as a person in my adult life or in my youth life? So that is the question we want to ask is how is paternal inheritance being transmitted to the offspring?

KUAR NEWS: So, an exposure by the father could impact the sperm and then eventually be passed down to the offspring?

Absolutely. This is why the research is so unique and exciting. It’s that if we can find the actual ways that these either good traits or bad traits can be passed from the father to the offspring. How would, let's say, a high fat diet, potentially even a stress level of the father, impact the offspring? And one more interesting aspect is, as all of us know, the sperm carries either an X or Y chromosome. So that means boys and girls, do we have differences in terms of transmissions? But in this study, we're not asking that question.

So, what does the research itself involve?

The research itself is initially an animal model. So, we have observed as the preliminary study that exposure to a very low level of arsenic – it’s really not high levels, very low levels that we normally would experience in the human population of arsenic – of the father mice will actually impact the fertility of the male offspring. And so, the proposed experiment is to isolate from the sperm. And this RNA actually carries different signals, different signatures based on the father's experience before conception, and that by itself is associated – at this point, we can only say is associated with the poor sperm quality of the offspring.

And you mentioned that some of the key things that can cause [exposure to arsenic are] pesticides, well water, things that are common in rural parts of the U.S. like this. Is this particularly a problem here in Arkansas? Is that why the research is being done here?

Oh, this is a very good question. I moved to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as the vice chancellor for research in 2019. So, the first thing I noticed is this really important crop that we have is rice. I'm of Asian American descent, so of course we will have higher levels of arsenic in our body. This is a national study and I also understand environmental impacts. So that's why we choose arsenic, because rice is an important crop for our state and also the historical legacy of pesticides, herbicides have high arsenic levels. That concerns me and that's why we picked this particular exposure.

Michael Hibblen is News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio. A 33-year radio veteran, he oversees the KUAR News staff, plans coverage and edits stories while also anchoring and reporting for the station.