Environment and diseases

Marc Pierrard_Mind the Brain
Marc Pierrard
Every day we are constantly exposed to chemicals in our environment – be it traffic exhaust, pesticides sprayed on the fields or household cleaning agents. At the LCSB, we want to understand how the environment influences health and disease - but this is not an easy task! The environment is incredibly complex, with over 125 million chemicals registered in the largest chemical registry and over 70,000 in household use alone. It requires a lot of detective work from our scientists to understand which chemicals are the ‘good’ or ‘bad guys’ for a given disease.


Investigating Luxembourg’s water quality

The team of Associate Prof. Emma Schymanski is working with the Administration de la gestion de l’eau. Using so-called high-resolution mass spectrometry, they can potentially detect thousands of molecules in the lab. Chemicals in the river can come, for example, from agriculture or the steel industry. But did you know that some chemicals also enter the water streams through our pee or poo? If we take medication, chemicals are released into the wastewater, also eventually entering rivers and ground water. Interestingly, one can even identify the season by looking for such chemicals in the river water. For instance, hay fever medication is more abundant in spring, antidepressants more in autumn and winter, de-icing fluid in winter, while illicit drug concentrations often increase on weekends. Looking into changes of chemicals throughout the year can give important information about their source.

Recently, the team of Associate Prof. Emma Schymanski has worked with Dutch and Swiss colleagues to show how high-resolution mass spectrometry can be used to trace the migration of organic pollutants through groundwater and into rivers.

Discovering the unknown

Although thousands of molecules are detected in our water, the vast majority of these are still unknown. Using special computational techniques, we constantly strive to increase the number of chemicals we can identify in our environment or in humans (e.g. in blood, urine or hair samples). This is essential for better understanding their toxicity and the causes underlying diseases.
Luxembourg river system
Detectives at work

For instance, the causes of Parkinson’s disease (PD) are largely unknown and hypothesized to be due to a complex combination of environmental and genetic factors. In addition, diseases like Parkinson’s take often several decades to develop. Therefore, the hardest part is to determine whether exposure to a chemical already decades ago may have influenced the disease using samples we can take only today from the patient. It’s like trying to find the needle in a haystack that might have rusted over time! But with highly precise analytics and computer-based methods, our experts are well equipped for this quest.