Wendy Westbroek, Ph.D.
Faculty, Life Sciences
I am a faculty member in the department of Life Sciences since the Spring of 2017. I received my BS in Biochemistry and a PhD in Medical Sciences from Ghent University (Belgium). Prior to joining SKC, I worked for seven years as a staff scientist and six years as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI, NIH) in Maryland. My ultimate goal is to increase active participation of Native American students in the biomedical field by creating undergraduate research opportunities that address health disparities in Native American communities through a “One Health” research approach. In my research, I apply the “One Health” philosophy in which human and environmental health are intertwined. My research interests involve the cellular basis of health disparities in Native American communities such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Project 1: The Impact of Environmental Heavy Metal Toxins on Exosome-Mediated Tumorigenesis
A disproportional amount of pollution sources is located on or near Tribal land, such as mines and toxic waste dumps. This has contributed to heavy metal toxin contamination of Tribal water sources and soil, resulting in documented health disparities, such as cancer, in Native American communities. Cadmium (Cd) is an environmental heavy metal toxin and human carcinogen. The two main sources of Cd exposure in Native American communities are mining and smelting activities and tobacco use. Population-based studies have established a link between Cd-exposure and lung cancer in both Native American and non-Native communities but the molecular mechanism of this relationship remains elusive. We will assess the involvement of exosomes in cancer development in responses to environmental heavy metal toxin exposures. Exosomes are small vesicles secreted into the extracellular environment when endosomal multi-vesicular bodies fuse with the plasma membrane. Exosomes are of great interest to the field of cancer research because of their involvement in release of pro-invasive factors, initiation of pre-metastatic niches, and influencing cell behavior in distant cells. The goal of this project is to demonstrate Cd-induced changes in exosome signatures on a molecular level.
Project 2: The Impact of Methylmercury on glucose uptake in adipose and muscle cells
The number of people suffering from type 2 diabetes (diabetes mellitus) has reached epidemic levels worldwide; however, Native American communities are more significantly affected with higher numbers of adults, adolescents, and even children suffering from the disease. The risk marker for Type 2 diabetes (diabetes mellitus) is the presence of increased levels of glucose in the blood stream due to insufficient insulin usage by muscle and adipose cells, the main cell types involved in insulin-dependent glucose uptake. In many Native American communities, fishing for food is a traditional practice and is a significant portion of the local diet. It is known that methylmercury, an environmental heavy metal toxin, bio-accumulates in traditionally caught fish. When consumed at or above a certain threshold, heavy metal toxins pose an increasing risk to human health and studies have suggested that this might impact the onset and progression of various diseases such as type 2 diabetes. We hypothesize that treatment of muscle and adipose cells with methylmercury will decrease insulin-dependent glucose uptake. To address our research question, we will establish relevant cell lines and measure glucose uptake before and after methylmercury treatment. This study could provide new insights into the role of heavy metal toxins and their potential impact on human health.
Wendy has published over 50 peer-reviewed research papers, many of them involving postbac, undergrad, and high school students.
List of publications: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=westbroek+w