all continents except one, Louis Guillette, Ph.D., gets great job
are the hazards, too, though. Mosquitoes, the size of small birds. Or
boating mishap, one of which left him stranded overnight on a tiny
the Florida Everglades, surrounded by the glowing red eyes and the
reptilian tails of the alligators he studies.
There is that.
Dr. Louis Guillette
performs a health check and tags an alligator before releasing him.
grins, his eyes alight with his passion for studying the wildlife
that give insight into the delicate web of how the health of the
impacts human health. As MUSC’s new Center of Economic Excellence
in Marine Genomics, Guillette also holds a joint appointment in MUSC’s
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Marine Biomedicine and
Environmental Sciences Center.
M.D., professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and vice
chairman for academic affairs and director of research, served on the
committee. He said he’s thrilled to bring in someone of Guillette’s
capabilities who can accelerate ongoing research and bring in the new
of environmental health.
is clearly the right person. Everybody in the country knows him.
obstetrics and gynecology who has an interest in environmental health
reproduction knows him.”
that have been published in the
past few years underscore the same conclusions about how environmental
contaminants are impacting human health, he said. It’s interesting to
female, baby alligators exposed to environmental contaminants have
their ovaries that look very similar to what is seen in patients with
polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“You see these
things, and you can’t help but wonder. We’re past the wondering stage,
we’re going to the asking questions stage,” he said. “It’s an area
begging for quality scientific investigation, and we’re positioning
to do that. We’re excited about the possibilities over the next five to
years. Environmental health is going to be one of the major health
the United States for the next 20 years.”
Dr. Louis Guillette
split his time between his office at MUSC and his laboratory at
Laboratory (HML), which is a partnership among MUSC, the S.C.
Natural Resources, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the College of
Eric R. Lacy,
Ph.D., director of MUSC’s Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences
based at HML, was influential in the recruitment of Guillette. Lacy
colleague, Norine Noonan, Ph.D., former dean of the School of
Science at the College of Charleston, wrote the successful multimillion
proposal that included a complementary endowed chair in marine
Together these two positions were expected to
expand on the nucleus in genomic sciences developed between the schools
develop a world-class program in environmental health. Lacy said the
of the College of Charleston through its Grice Marine Laboratory will
continuum of training from undergraduates to medical and research
One of HML’s
goals is to link ongoing environmental research in contaminant
clinical applications that have the potential to directly impact
lives. The laboratory, one of three NOAA Oceans and Human Health
nationally, will fit exactly into the kind of research that Guillette
“Now we got
it. It was fortuitous. We shared this big vision and Roger gets it,”
of the support of Newman and the Department of Obstetrics and
combining forces. “We are marine biomedicine. We have medicine as a
part of our
name. This direct link and program building, we’ve never had at this
before. We are very excited that this has worked.”
continue the type of research he was doing at the University of
Gainesville, but will be able to take advantage of the resources at HML
MUSC as well. Guillette said the next 15 to 20 years are going to
huge numbers of diseases caused by environmental factors that lead to
or conditions such as infertility or endometriosis which dramatically
quality of life.
powerful attraction for me is that I get to wear two hats. I have the
unbelievable opportunity to be in both worlds,” he said. “When I’m in
I’m surrounded by biologists who are thinking about ecology,
environmental health. Then I drive 10 minutes, and I walk into a
major mission is not only to do the day-to-day practice of medicine,
to try to actually understand what is the underlying basis of the
health that we’re seeing.”
climber and reproductive endocrinologist, Guillette developed an
lizards and the effect of altitude on pregnancy during his doctoral
environmental, population and organismic biology at the University of
When his career path lead him to Florida, his earlier studies had
with Florida’s game and fish commission knocking on his door.
advice on the reproductive biology of their alligators and for
work with them.
“I said, “No,
you don’t understand. The animals I work with are about this big,” he
holding up his hands about six inches, “and if they bite me, I get a
blister. I’m not going to die.”
Not one to
back off a challenge, Guillette became involved in their project
especially when he realized that the animals weren’t producing at the
expected and the mortality of the babies was higher than expected.
“We had all
the data, but couldn’t understand the big picture.”
pieces started coming together from the research of Dr. Theo Colborn, a
scientist who became known for her pioneering work examining endocrine
disruption, and Howard Bern, Professor Emeritus at University of
Berkeley, who came to talk to Guillette’s group. He was speaking on
Daughters” about how the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol affected
female children born to women who had been exposed to it, including
prone to the development of cervical cancer.
up a slide of the pathology of the ovary. I said, ‘Wait a minute.
exactly the pathology I’ve been finding in alligators now for five
was one of those ah-ha moments.”
alligators weren’t getting synthetic estrogens, so the search was on
environmental chemicals mimicking the effects. Guillette said they have
that it’s a suite of compounds causing the problems, some of which
able to identify. It shows researchers how ecosystems affect the
biology of wildlife and humans—of the powerful impact it makes on
maternal-fetal communication, he said. They are learning how the
embryo talks to the mother chemically to establish, maintain and
don’t understand how alligators can shed light on human health until he
slide he has of similarities of the genetic mechanisms in the sexual
the two species, he said.
wildlife as sentinels for human health and for their own health. I have
mantra that if the environment is healthy for them, it’s healthy for us
vice versa. We have to link this stuff together.”
That linking is getting easier, thanks to the technological
advances of the past five years that have enabled the genetics world to
explode. Research that used to take a year, now can be done in a week,
laboratory facilities at HML provide a perfect environment for
multi-disciplinary work. He’s already getting queries from other
such as NOAA, which already is established at HML.
A proponent of
large mentoring programs, Guillette plans to develop an environmental
reproductive biology group. “I think we have the potential to be the
group for environmental health and reproductive health,” he said,
he wants physicians in multiple disciplines to be a component of that
“Physicians aren’t trained in this field. If we can get some of the
faculty to begin to appreciate how important this environmental
component is to
the practice of medicine, then I think we’ll not only change things,
put MUSC on the map in a different way.”
bringing with him his belief in having a laboratory without walls. For
10 years, he has collaborated with colleagues from such places as
Africa and Mexico, running projects together and doing real-time
going to be a scientist in the 21st century, you have to
globally. You have to be enculturated. You have to understand your
and their culture. You have to let young people meet and talk and
That’s a really important thing for me.”
the main legacy that researchers give to science is the people they
work you do is critical, but what is more important is building this
people, and one of the fun things I saw here was colleagues and
have this vision that environment in health is important,” he
have to have leaders who are willing to take a risk—basically put their
where their mouth is. And you have to have people who are willing to
risk, in other words, get out of their comfort zones. Are we willing to
of our comfort zones and create something bigger?
“For me, that’s the fun part.”
Friday, Sept. 10, 2010
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