Pocket-Sized Device Provides Food Allergy Sufferers with Life-Saving Tableside Lab Results

If you’re among the 50 million Americans with a severe allergy to foods like gluten or nuts, every meal at a restaurant can feel like a potential land mine. Even if the restaurant has made an effort to provide dishes that are allergen-free, worries of cross-contamination and a subsequent severe or potentially life threatening reaction can still put a damper on your dinner plans.

To help ease concerns and keep food allergy sufferers safe, a team at Massachusetts General Hospital has developed a new device small enough to fit on a keyring that costs only $40 and can quickly and accurately test for food allergens.

While advances have been made in the packaged food industry, where new federal regulations require the manufacturer to disclose whether the product is made in a facility that also processes common allergens, these disclosures are not always accurate and there are no similar regulations for the restaurant industry.

Rather than force diners to completely avoid foods that have the chance of containing an allergen, or eat something only to regret it later, Mass General researchers created integrated exogenous antigen testing (iEAT), a pocket-sized device that can accurately analyze food for the presences of allergens in less than 10 minutes. Specifically, the device can screen for peanuts, hazelnuts, wheat, milk and eggs.

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The iEAT system

Developed by co-senior team leaders Ralph Weissleder, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Systems Biology (CSB) at Mass General and Hakho Lee, PhD, Hostetter MGH Research Scholar and Director of the Biomedical Engineering Program at the CSB, the device consists of three components:

  1. A small plastic test tube that the user can put a small sample of food into. The tube contains a solution that dissolves the sample and adds magnetic beads to the solution. The beads are designed to bind to the food allergen of interest.
  2. The user can then drop the solution onto an electrode chip, which is inserted into the keychain sized reader.
  3. The reader analyzes the sample and indicates on a small display whether the allergen is present, and if so, in what concentration.

Testing performed by the research team showed that measurements of the concentration of the allergen is extremely accurate. In fact, the device could detect levels of gluten that were 200 times lower than the federal standard. Accuracy is key because everyone’s sensitivity varies — some individuals could experience a reaction after consuming a miniscule trace of an allergen.

Weissleder and Lee have also developed a smartphone app to complement iEAT. With the app, users can compile and store the data they collect as they test different foods for various allergens at different restaurants and even in packaged foods. The app is set up to share this information online so others with the app will be able to find restaurants with foods that consistently have no or low levels that are below the individual’s triggering concentration.

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Consumers may be able to purchase the $40 iEAT device and corresponding app in the near future — the research team has granted a license to a local start-up company to make the system commercially available. Weissleder and Lee also report that they could apply this technology to detect other substances in food such as MSG or even pesticides.

This research was recently highlighted in an NIH article and published in ACS Nano.

It was also recently featured in a news story on CBS Boston.

Kamryn Eddy Finds Hope for Patients with Eating Disorders

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The people we encounter early in life can often have a profound impact on our future. For Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist Dr. Kamryn Eddy, a childhood friend influenced her career trajectory.

“I had a close friend in high school who had anorexia,” says Dr. Eddy. “As a result, she had a number of health concerns, including osteoporosis, and was told at age 16 that she would never be able to have children.”

She recalls being shocked that a doctor would give such a definitive and dire prognosis to someone so young. Eddy has kept in touch with her friend, who found help for her eating disorder and was eventually able to recover. Her friend now has a healthy young daughter.

“That early experience was one of my introductions to the world of eating disorders,” says Eddy. “Seeing my friend’s battle and eventual recovery from her illness also showed me that there can be hope for people suffering from eating disorders.” Continue reading “Kamryn Eddy Finds Hope for Patients with Eating Disorders”

Four Massachusetts General Hospital Researchers Receive Prestigious NIH Director’s Awards

Please join us in congratulating the four Mass General investigators who recently received director’s awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)! These awards are given to exceptionally creative scientists who propose innovative approaches with high-impact potential to major challenges in biomedical research.

Continue reading to learn more about each researcher and their proposed work as well as their reaction to receiving this award.

New Innovator Award

The New Innovator Award supports exceptionally creative early career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects.

Evan Macosko, M.D., Ph.D.
Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital

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“I am delighted and honored that the NIH is willing to support this high-risk technology project.  The lab can’t wait to get started on some potentially very impactful scientific work.”

Project Title: Slide-Seq: High-Resolution In Situ Expression Profiling for Neuropathology
Grant ID: DP2-AG-058488

Evan Macosko is a principal investigator in the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad institute, and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His research focuses on developing and leveraging new technologies in genomics to characterize pathophysiological mechanisms in neuropsychiatric diseases. As a postdoc in Steven McCarroll’s lab at Harvard Medical School, he developed a new method, Drop-seq, for performing highly parallel gene expression analysis of single cells from complex neural tissues. He completed a psychiatry residency at MGH and McLean Hospital, and is currently an attending psychiatrist at MGH. He holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Genetics from Rockefeller University, and an M.D. from Weill Cornell Medical College.

Radhika Subramanian, Ph.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

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“I am extremely grateful and honored to receive the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. The support provided by this award will allow my lab to pursue a new research direction where we will develop a versatile cell-free imaging platform that will enable us to decipher how spatial cues are encoded and decoded within cells. We expect that the toolkit established here will be applicable for elucidating the fundamental mechanisms that govern the spatial organization of cellular reactions that underlie diverse cell-­biological  processes of biomedical significance such as cell division, migration, and development.”

Project Title: A Versatile Platform for Reconstructing the Spatial Organization of Intracellular Signaling During Cell-Division
Grant ID: DP2-GM-126894

Radhika Subramanian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Her lab focuses on elucidating the fundamental principles by which intracellular spatial organization on the micron-length scale is achieved by the collective activity of nanometer-sized proteins. Radhika received her M.Sc. in Chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, India. She performed her doctoral research with Dr. Jeff Gelles at Brandeis University followed by postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Dr. Tarun Kapoor at the Rockefeller University. In addition to the NIH New Innovator Award, Radhika is a Pew Biomedical Scholar and a recipient of the Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research.

Brian Wainger, M.D., Ph.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital | Harvard Medical School

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“I’m thrilled to receive the award. It’s a great honor, and I’m grateful for the hard work of my group, particularly Joao Pereira and Anna-Claire Devlin, that enabled it. It’s also of course due to very strong support from MGH, the departments of Neurology and Anesthesia, Critical Care & Pain Medicine. And with the award comes an even greater responsibility to produce research that ultimately helps our patients – I’m excited and humbled by that.”

Project Title: A Human Stem Cell-Derived Neuromuscular Junction Model for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Grant ID: DP2-NS-106664

Brian Wainger is a physician scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor of Neurology and Anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular biology from Princeton University and M.D./Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University, where he worked on ion channel physiology with Steven Siegelbaum. Following medical residency in the Partners Neurology Program and clinical fellowship in Interventional Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, he completed a research fellowship with Clifford Woolf at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Masters Program in Clinical and Translational Investigation at Harvard Medical School. He is a Principal Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Principal Faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and a member of the Harvard Neurobiology Program. His lab research focuses on modeling motor and sensory neuron diseases using stem cell technology and electrophysiology.

Early Independence Award

The Early Independence Award supports outstanding junior scientists with the intellect, scientific creativity, drive, and maturity to flourish independently by bypassing the traditional post-doctoral training period.

Zirui Song, M.D., Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital

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“It is an honor to receive this grant and join an inspiring community of investigators. I am grateful to the faculty and colleagues who made my training possible. This grant will allow me to continue my research on strategies to improve the value of care, including studying efforts to decrease costs, improve quality, and increase the sustainability of our public programs like Medicare. In addition, this grant provides an opportunity to better understand how providers are leading delivery system reforms on the front lines and how different segments of the population are faring in the era of health care reform.”

Project Title: Inequities in Health Outcomes in the Twenty-First Century: Understanding New Causes and the Impact of Delivery System Reforms on Health Care Disparities
Grant ID: DP5-OD-024564
Funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Zirui Song is an assistant professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. His research has focused on health care spending and quality under new payment models for provider organizations, the impact of changes in Medicare physician payment policy, and the economics of health insurance in the Medicare Advantage program. He received a B.A. in Public Health Studies with honors from Johns Hopkins University, an M.D. magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School, and a Ph.D. in Health Policy, Economics track, from Harvard University, where he was a fellow in Aging and Health Economics at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He completed his residency training at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Lady Gaga’s Diagnosis Helps Shed Light on a Perplexing Chronic Pain Disorder

Despite her celebrity status, Lady Gaga has been remarkably honest and open about her struggles with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder. The star announced her diagnosis on social media earlier this month, and just recently canceled tour dates due to disorder-related complications.

Fibromyalgia has traditionally been a challenge to diagnose and treat, because there is no test for it. Doctors make the diagnosis based on patient reported symptoms. Researchers at Mass General are hoping to change that by using imaging techniques to demonstrate brain changes in fibromyalgia patients and investigating potential causes for the disease.

What is fibromyalgia and what are the symptoms?

Fibromyalgia is a common chronic pain disorder that can be extremely debilitating. The disorder is characterized by widespread pain, accompanied with un-refreshing sleep, fatigue, memory and cognitive problems, sensitivity to temperatures, light, and sound, and headaches. It can also co-exist with other conditions including depression, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome.

These symptoms severely impact the 5-10 million Americans living with this disorder. The pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia can make it difficult to maintain work and social obligations. Symptoms also come in waves at seemingly random intervals, which can blindside individuals.

What causes fibromyalgia?

It’s thought that disturbances in the central nervous system affect the way the brain processes pain signals, which amplifies the painful sensations that fibromyalgia patients experience. But why these disturbances occur remains a mystery.

Experts suggest that the disorder could be driven by several factors, including physical or emotional trauma, prior illness or infection, and genetics. Women are also more likely to develop fibromyalgia than are men, though researchers don’t know why.

In an effort to find answers to these questions, Marco Loggia, PhD, Associate Director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging and a researcher in the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, studies the brain mechanisms of pain in patients with fibromyalgia. His research suggests that some degree of brain inflammation may be at play, given that brain inflammation is common among chronic back pain sufferers and most fibromyalgia patients suffer from chronic back pain.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for fibromyalgia. As a result, the focus of treatment is on managing pain and improving quality of life for patients. However, patients often struggle to find the right combination of treatments to manage their condition.

Clinicians often recommend medications including pain relievers, anti-depressants, and anti-seizure drugs to reduce pain and improve sleep. Some patients also utilize therapies such as physical therapy or counseling and alternative treatments like massage therapy, yoga or acupuncture.

Is there stigma associated with fibromyalgia?

Because there are no lab tests to diagnose fibromyalgia, patients are frequently met with skepticism, even by their own primary care team. The pain they report is often dismissed as being “all in their head.”

In a recent interview with HealthDay News, Loggia said, “Many studies—and particularly those using brain imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging—have now provided substantial support to the notion that the excessive sensitivity to pain that these patients demonstrate is genuine. I think that it is time to stop dismissing these patients.”

With celebrities like Lady Gaga raising awareness of this disease and researchers like Loggia investigating its causes and progression, could individuals suffering from fibromyalgia soon see advances in treatment and care—as well as more public understanding of this debilitating disorder?

To read more on this topic:

Research Awards and Honors: September 2017

Massachusetts General Hospital’s talented and dedicated researchers are working to push the boundaries of science and medicine every day. In this series we highlight a few individuals who have recently received awards or honors for their achievements:

Aguirre

Aaron Aguirre, MD, PhD, of the Cardiology Division and the Center for Systems Biology, has received a 2017 Physician/Scientist Development Award for “Morphology and Dynamic Functions of Pericytes in the Heart.” Aguirre’s project will use state-of-the-art microscopy techniques to better understand the role of pericytes—unique cells that line the outer walls of the smallest blood vessels in the heart. Funding for the Physician/Scientist Development Awards is provided by the Executive Committee on Research along with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

“I am grateful for the research support provided by the MGH Physician Scientist Development Award. It will allow me to expand my current research into a new direction and to generate critical preliminary data necessary for future grant applications.”

 

Chung

David Chung, MD, PhD, attending neurointensivist in the Neurology Department, has been awarded the Timothy P. Susco Chair of Research and the Andrew David Heitman Foundation Chair of Research from The Brain Aneurysm Foundation for his work, “Impact of Spreading Depolarizations and Subarachnoid Hemorrhage on Brain Connectivity.” He is one of 14 awardees, given to those whose work is impacting a disease that affects one in 50 people in the United States, often leading to death or lifelong disability.

My immediate reaction to receiving this award was gratitude towards my mentors in the Department of Neurology at MGH: Cenk Ayata, Jonathan Rosand, Guy Rordorf, and Leigh Hochberg. Without their support, this work would not be possible. A major question in Neurocritical Care is how to prevent poor outcome after a ruptured brain aneurysm. Even when we successfully repair the aneurysm, many patients will develop a syndrome of progressive brain damage for unknown reasons. This award will enable us to examine unexplored causes of brain damage and poor outcome with the goal of improving quality of life in survivors of the disease.”

 

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Julie Levison, MD, MPhil, MPH, of the Division of General Internal Medicine, has received a CFAR ADELANTE Award from the National Institutes of Health, the Office of AIDS Research and the NIH-funded Centers for AIDS Research to support new  investigators working on HIV research in Latinos. Hispanic/Latino populations in the U.S. currently bear a disproportionate burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The ADELANTE team is composed of Dr. Levison (principle investigator), Dr. Margarita Alegría, chief MGH Disparities Research Unit, and Carmen Rios, Respite Case Manager at the Barbara McGinnis House.

“The ADELANTE award is a special type of research award because it recognizes the value of community-academic collaborations in overcoming disparities in HIV outcomes in Latino populations. In this study, we will use qualitative research to solicit the needs and priorities of HIV-infected Latino migrants with substance use disorders or who report male-to-male sex and we will use that feedback to tailor and evaluate a community-based intervention we have developed for HIV-infected Latinos with inconsistent HIV primary care attendance.”

 

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Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, MPA, adult and pediatric obesity medicine physician of the MGH Weight Center, Department of Medicine-Gastroenterology and Department of Pediatrics-Endocrinology, has received a 2017 Physician-Scientist Development Award from the MGH Center for Diversity and Inclusion for “Exploring Referral Patterns and Shared Decision Making Regarding Weight Loss Surgery in Adolescents and Young Adults with Moderate to Severe Obesity.” Funding for the Physician/Scientist Development Awards is provided by the Executive Committee on Research in conjunction with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Stanford also has been selected to the inaugural class of Emory University Alumni Association’s “40 Under Forty,” a selected group of outstanding young alumni with impressive track records who are “go-to” leaders.

“I am delighted to be the recipient of the MGH Physician Scientist Development award in partnership with the MGH Center for Diversity and Inclusion and ECOR. I believe that we are just at the beginning of discerning issues associated with addressing obesity in the pediatric and adult populations. This award allows me to ascertain information about shared decision making in adolescents and young adults with moderate to severe obesity in which weight loss surgery might be utilized to help them achieve a healthy weight. To our knowledge, no one has investigated the use of shared decision making regarding weight loss surgery in young people. This awards allows us to do just that.”

 

Temel GreerJennifer Temel, MD, director of the Cancer Outcomes Research Program and Hostetter MGH Research Scholar, along with Joseph Greer, PhD, program director of the Center for Psychiatric Oncology & Behavioral Sciences, have received a research funding award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) for their research “Comparative Effectiveness of Early Integrated Telehealth Versus In-Person Palliative Care for Patients with Advanced Lung Cancer.” The new awards were given to those whose work specifically focuses on community-based palliative care delivery. The goal of this project is to determine if telehealth is an effective, patient-centered, and accessible delivery modality for early palliative care.

“We are overjoyed to receive this research award from PCORI. By testing novel models of care using telemedicine, we hope to demonstrate that greater numbers of patients with advanced cancer and their families can access and benefit from essential palliative care services closer to the time of diagnosis.”

 

Whetstine.jpgJohnathan Whetstine, PhD, of the MGH Cancer Center and Tepper Family MGH Research Scholar, has received a Lung Cancer Discovery Award from the American Lung Association. This award supports investigators at any level of research experience focusing on novel treatments or a cure for lung cancer. His goal is to use studies about histone modifiers to provide insights into tumor heterogeneity and emerging drug resistance so that better molecular diagnostics, epigenetic therapeutic molecules, or use of novel therapeutic combinations can be achieved in cancer treatment.

“We are very excited to receive this award from the ALA.  This support allows my group to continue to expand our lung cancer research program in the area of tumor heterogeneity and drug resistance. Most importantly, these resources allow us the opportunity to explore novel regulatory pathways driving heterogeneity and copy gains of regions affiliated with resistant lung cancer, which provides insights into novel diagnostics and therapeutic opportunities in this hard-to-treat cancer.”

 

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Alik Widge, MD, PhD, director of the Translational NeuroEngineering Laboratory, Division of Neurotherapeutics, has received the 2017 One Mind/Janssen Rising Star Translational Research Award from the One Mind Institute and Janssen Research & Development, LLC. This award identifies and funds pivotal, innovative research on the causes of and cures for brain disorders. Toward boosting the recovery of patients with illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, Widge proposes to identify precisely the brain circuits that govern the inflexibility of thinking common among patients with such illnesses, and to test whether neurostimulation of these circuits could improve mental flexibility.

“I was very excited about the Rising Star award, for two reasons. First, it brings much-needed seed funding to our lab for an unconventional but possibly high-yield project. We have found that electrical brain stimulation in humans can improve mental flexibility — the ability to “take the road less traveled by” and explore new behavior strategies. That ability is impaired in many mental illnesses. Our problem is that we don’t yet know how the electrical stimulation improves flexibility. The Rising Star award will let us set up animal experiments to identify the circuit basis of the effect, findings we could then translate back into humans. 

Second, this is a really important award in psychiatric research. It’s brought our lab’s other work into the spotlight, which will help those projects progress. I’m grateful both to the OneMind Institute for the award and to the MGH team that helped me get the preliminary data that made it possible.”

Hackathon Revolutionizes Care with Plan to Reduce Deadly Opiate Overdoses

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Members of We Are Allies, from left, Jessica Moreno, PharmD, Kristian Olson, MD, and Benjamin Bearnot, MD

When it comes to stopping the deadly effects of an opiate overdose, time is of the essence. Every moment that the brain is deprived of oxygen increases the risk of permanent damage or death. Overdoses can be reversed by administering a drug called Narcan, but the treatment has to be delivered quickly. A team of clinical specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital is hoping to revolutionize the way we respond to overdoses by putting Narcan in the hands of team of citizen volunteers who are ready to help whenever—and wherever—an overdose happens.

The Opioid Epidemic

There were 1,531 confirmed deaths attributed to opioid overdoses in Massachusetts in 2015, according to statistics recently released by the state. With the opioid epidemic continuing to spiral out of control nationwide, there’s a need to find a solution to curb the staggering number of deaths by overdose.

Help could be on the way thanks to an innovative new concept that emerged from a Fall 2016 hackathon put on by the Center for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) and Global Medicine at Mass General and sponsored by the GE Foundation.

The Allies Concept

The three-day hackathon provided an opportunity for three Mass General specialists—Kristian Olson, MD, the Medical Director of CAMTech and a core educator in the Department of Medicine, Benjamin Bearnot, MD, a primary care physician and Innovation Fellow at MGH Charlestown, and Jessica Moreno, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist at Mass General—to collaborate on a plan for reversing overdoses before they do lasting damage.

Olson, Bearnot and Moreno were part of a nine-person team that also featured an industrial designer, an engineer, an industry pharmacologist, and importantly, people in recovery.

Their plan, titled We Are Allies, calls for equipping everyday citizen volunteers with an easy to administer spray version of anti-overdose drug naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan®.

Overdoses can be deadly because opiates bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord that are responsible for keeping us breathing. When an overdose occurs, these receptors can slow down or stop working all together, which means the body can essentially “forget” to keep breathing. Naloxone reverses the effects of an overdose by releasing the hold that opiates have on the receptors.

It does not have an adverse affect on someone who is not having an opioid overdose, which makes it safe to administer if an overdose is suspected but not confirmed.

The team believes that getting naloxone into the hands of more people will increase the odds that someone will be nearby to help when an overdose occurs. Naloxone is relatively easy to get and safe to use, but many people—even doctors—don’t carry it with them on a regular basis.

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The Allies’ distinctive purple carrying case is designed to let others know that the person is carrying the anti-overdose drug naloxone

Another key component of the team’s plan is to have the Allies carry their naloxone in a bright purple pouch that can be attached to their handbag or workbag. This distinctive design will let others know that the person is carrying naloxone and is ready to help if needed.

“Not enough people have easy access to this life-saving medication, especially in situations where it is needed most,” says Moreno. “On top of that, those who do need it may be afraid or ashamed to seek it out due to the stigma they face every day. We hope to address both of these issues head-on by encouraging Allies to essentially wear the naloxone on their sleeves in our carrying cases.”

Reducing Stigma

The team hopes the high visibility purple pouches and indicator pins will also raise the public profile of the Allies in the community, which may help to foster new conversations about opioid use disorder and reduce the stigma and sense of isolation that many who suffer from the disorder experience.

“We thought that ‘ally’ was such a great term,” explained Olson. “We rallied around it because it changed the notion of isolation. We wanted to say; ‘We’re all allies in fighting opioid use disorder.’”

For more details on the program including training videos and information on how to sign up as an ally, please visit http://www.becomeanally.com/.

More than Just Hindering Fires – Can Flame Retardants Interfere with Fertility?

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In a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a team of researchers investigated the potential connection between exposure to flame retardant chemicals found in household products— called PFRs — and pregnancy. While we can’t conclude from the results that products like yoga mats cause infertility, the findings bolster pre-existing research suggesting an association between PFRs and reproductive complications.

What are PFRs?
PFRs (organophosphate flame retardants) are a class of chemicals that are commonly used in the polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture, baby products such as nursing pillows, bouncers, and swings, and yoga mats (to name a few) to make them less flammable.

What’s the risk with PFRs?
They can spread from the foam into the air and dust. Considering the ubiquity of PFR-containing products, we likely inhale the chemicals on a regular basis without even knowing it. Although scientists don’t yet have enough conclusive evidence to say that PFRs are bad for our overall health, a growing body of research suggests exposure to PFRs can disrupt the hormones involved in reproduction and embryo/fetus growth. This new study expanded the evidence base by specifically looking at possible connections between exposure to PFRs and pregnancy.

What did the study involve and what did they find?
A team of researchers, including Mass General’s Russ Hauser, MD, MPH, ScD, followed 211 women who went to the Mass General Fertility Center to be evaluated for in vitro fertilization (IVF). The researchers checked the women’s urine for traces of PFRs and found that more than 80% of the women had traces of three types PFRs in their urine. After a cycle of IVF treatments, those with high levels of the chemicals were 31% less likely to have the embryo successfully implant in the uterus, 41% less likely to achieve pregnancy, and a 38% less likely to have a live birth than those with low levels.

What do the results mean? The research team looked at the correlation between traces of PFR and pregnancy outcomes but did not study whether PFR exposure was the cause of pregnancy complications.  Thus, we can’t conclude that exposure to PFR-containing products leads to infertility. However, the findings suggest an association between high levels of PFR exposure and poor pregnancy outcomes. Additionally, because researchers didn’t look at which specific PFR-containing products were the source of the chemical exposure, we can’t single out yoga mats or sofas as the culprits.

Are there limitations to the study?
The study participants were drawn from a small pool of women who were living in and around Boston, so it is not representative of the population at large. Plus, all participants were recruited from an IVF clinic, which suggests they many participants were predisposed to fertility issues coming into the study.

What’s next?
There’s an ongoing debate about the rational for putting flame retardants like PFRs in household products. Studies like this one provide compelling evidence for a potential association between PFR exposure and negative health outcomes like infertility, though more research needs to be conducted.  There are also questions as to how effectively PFRs prevent fires. In 2010, a group of 145 scientists from 22 countries published a statement detailing their concerns that flame retardants weren’t worth the health risks they posed.

What can people do to protect themselves in the meantime?
While it’s nearly impossible to fully avoid PFRs, consumers can minimize exposure by looking for products that have a natural flame retardant like leather or wool fabric, or seek out organic yoga mats. In a Huffington Post article, lead author Courtney Carignan of the Harvard T. Chan School for Public Health said that other precautions, like good-hand washing practices before meals, can also help lower levels of these chemicals in the body.