UAA researcher leads probe of contaminant

Most Americans have a trace of chemical in their bodies

Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A University of Alaska Anchorage researcher is leading a study into the effect of a chemical contaminant.

Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News
Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News

Frank von Hippel and colleagues received the first installment this month of a $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. That will pay for five more years of work on the chemical called perchlorate.

The Anchorage Daily News reported the chemical is found in road flares, fireworks and vehicle air bags. It is also used in rockets and artillery. Most Americans have a trace of it in their bodies from groundwater or eating tainted fruits and vegetables.

A biologist, von Hippel uses a small fish called a stickleback to research how the chemical may affect the human endocrine system.

The scientist comes from a prominent Anchorage family, and his work is adding to the university's reputation. "We've sort of arrived now, at least with respect to our competitiveness, at least with this faculty member," said UAA's associate dean Kim Peterson. "It's really quite a good thing."

The 43-year-old von Hippel's mother was a pediatrician, and his father, Arndt von Hippel, was Alaska's first heart surgeon. Arndt von Hippel also ran for the Legislature in 1986 and lost the Republican primary after a contentious battle. He later sued Veco Corp. and owner Bill Allen for allegedly laundering campaign donations to aid his opponent. (Allen was recently convicted of bribing legislators, and Veco was sold.)

After graduating from East High School, Frank von Hippel went to Dartmouth College, got his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Columbia University.

He returned home because he loves Anchorage, he said.

"It's wonderful to have someone like Frank come home. To have one of our best and brightest come back," said UAA provost Mike Driscoll.

Von Hippel's interests are diverse from studying primates in Kenya to studying the effect of Viagra sales on curbing trade in endangered species coveted as aphrodisiacs. He teaches around the world when he can. In the fall, he's taking his wife and three young children to Argentina for a three-month teaching job.

Von Hippel and colleague Loren Buck, a UAA endocrinologist with whom he received the NIH grant, often bounce ideas back and forth while biking around the trails near the university. The grant also covers work by University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Todd O'Hara and professors John Postlethwait and William Cresko from the University of Oregon.

Von Hippel's research on perchlorate began eight years ago. He and his colleagues and graduate students found that perchlorate-exposed female sticklebacks produce sperm. The NIH-funded work will look at just how that is happening. They hope to better understand why humans are seeing a surge in reproductive diseases, including low sperm counts, babies born with ambiguous genitalia and problematic hormone systems.

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