Impact of Environmental Toxicants on Reproductive Function

Council research into environmental toxicants could help men protect their fertility while increasing their contraceptive options.

The Issue

Environmental toxicants, such as cadmium, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and bisphenol A (BPA), are endocrine disruptors. Exposure to these toxicants—such as occupational exposure or inhalation through cigarette smoking—can lead to reduced sperm count and male infertility.

The Population Council is studying the effects of cadmium on male fertility to inform the development of new male contraceptive methods, and to identify ways to protect or treat men who are infertile as a result of exposure to environmental toxicants.

The Progress

The Council has conducted research on cadmium and infertility for more than 15 years. Council researchers have identified the signaling pathways by which cadmium crosses the blood–testis barrier, which normally protects the testes from toxicants. Additionally, they have developed means to inhibit this disruption by administering an inhibitor or by overexpressing specific genes, which may halt or even reverse the cadmium-induced damage to the blood–testis barrier.

Work is in progress to develop a way to administer these chemicals and/or overexpress specific genes so they can protect the testes from environmental toxicants.

Furthermore, the Council has also made considerable advances in understanding the mechanism by which PFOS induces Sertoli cell injury.  Researcheres have identified the molecular targets of PFOS (e.g., actin- and microtubule-based cytoskeletons) and the involving signaling proteins (e.g., rpS6 and Akt1/2) so that its toxicity effects can be blocked in both rat and human Sertoli cells. 

The Impact

The Council’s research on cadmium is leading to a better understanding of the blood–testis barrier, which promises to enable the development of novel male contraceptives as well as new ways to prevent or treat male infertility.

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