Small molecules, big effects

Small molecules, big effects

College of Pharmacy researcher has spent her career uncovering the impact toxins have on our bodies.

By Stacey Marquis
Dr. Margaret James, professor and chair of the department of medicinal chemistry, has found that tricolsan, an ingredient found in some of the most popular brands of antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and other household products, may disrupt an enzyme important during pregnancy.

Dr. Margaret James, professor and chair of the department of medicinal chemistry.

With nearly 150 research articles and nine book chapters under her belt, one would think Margaret O. James, Ph.D., D.Sc., would want to slow down. Instead, the Jack C. Massey professor and graduate coordinator for the College of Pharmacy department of medicinal chemistry, is balancing several responsibilities at once and wants to continue to make new discoveries.

Her body of work focuses on how foreign chemicals, such as pesticides, cigarette smoke, food additives and other small molecules, impact the body and if the way our bodies process them have anything to do with it.

In January, James was featured in articles from The Washington Post, New Scientist, Salon and Smithsonian Magazine regarding a study about the impact of pollutants called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, on polar bears.

“The polar bear is really interesting because it sits in the Arctic and the way the Earth’s geological cycles are, if we apply pesticides and have other industrial chemicals in temperate zones, like Florida or most of the U.S., some of those are volatile,” she said. “They get in the atmosphere, and they are carried by trade winds up to the polar regions.”

James did research on polar bear livers in the past, so that’s why she thinks she was contacted by so many organizations on this topic. She is used to being contacted by journalists to contribute her expertise to stories.

“In a way, it’s good that someone is taking an interest in what I do,” she said.

James also conducted a study in 2010 that gained a lot of traction on the chemical triclosan, which is found in antibacterial soaps and other household cleaning products, and how it plays a role in not allowing estrogen to be delivered to fetuses in the womb, which can be detrimental to a baby’s brain development and gene regulation.

On top of her ongoing research projects, James enjoys watching her students succeed.

“I enjoy seeing students mature and also get interested in a particular problem and feel really involved in solving it, and (seeing) how good they feel when they get results they can be proud of,” she said. “That makes me feel good, too.”

James grew up near the coast in South Wales, United Kingdom. After attending universities in London, she permanently moved to the U.S. in 1972 because the opportunities for scientists were better in the U.S. than in the U.K. She joined the UF faculty in 1980.

Her success wasn’t achieved without challenges. She said trying to balance raising a family, having a lab and finding funding for the lab was difficult. Her children are grown now, but she said she got lucky because her husband was supportive.

After studying the impact of toxins for decades, James said she takes measures to be conscious of what chemicals she uses at home. Now, more than in the past, she said people are becoming aware of what they’re putting into the environment and how they dispose of chemicals.

“I think this has risen up in people’s consciousness over the decades that I’ve been active,” she said. “I hope that continues.”