Six Weeks To Fitness

Dr. Francoise Sidime is a neuroscientist and assistant professor at the College of Staten Island, Helene Fuld School of Nursing and Wagner College. She obtained her PhD in neuroscience at the Graduate Center CUNY in New York. Francoise currently lectures and teaches extensive skills employed in the field of biology and neuroscience. Francoise is also the founder and president of Ekarus Global Science, a program dedicated to providing academic advancements, mentorship, and research opportunities to high school students in the STEM discipline. Dr. Sidime is also the co-founder of a sister company called PreMedPro, a program that offers pre-med high school students training skills in the field of medicine.

Vince Ferguson:

Before we get started discussing your research into autism, tell my listeners what inspired you to go into the medical field and become a neuroscientist.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, there were several reasons, but the one that actually sticks out was my mentor. At the time, when I was trying to pursue a medical career, we were all required to basically do research in labs because that's part of the requirement in order to get into medical school. So, when I went and I worked with my mentor, he did a lot of work in neuroscience and he had extensive knowledge and just really, really well-versed in the subjects. As a result, I admired everything that he was doing and the work he was working on. As a result, I felt that that's where I should be. Of course, when I started to operate on brains, opening them up and seeing all these intricate structures, I knew there was no turning back at that point.

Vince Ferguson:

At that point you were hooked?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Oh, I was hooked after that. Yes, that was it. That was it.

Vince Ferguson:

Wow. So, how did you get involved with autism?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So my mentor, that was a field that he was actually working on. So, his mentor prior to that worked with him when he was a PhD and a post-doctoral student. So they worked on different areas, Fragile X. And so he continued working on autism as well. When I came into the lab as his student... This particular mentor, by the way, has a name. His name is Dr. Abdeslem El Idrissi. So, when I started working in his laboratory, I found that he was working a lot on autism cases. As a result, I ended up jumping on those topics as well and I realized I liked them a lot, and that's how I got involved in the research as well.

Vince Ferguson:

Okay. Well, did you get involved in any particular area of autism?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Yes. So, the particular area that we actually focus on is called the Fragile X. So, because autism has a vast spectrum, as most people know, they particularly worked on a single area, which is on the Fragile X. It's called the Fragile X syndrome. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Fragile X?

Vince Ferguson:

No.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

No. Okay. So, they worked on the Fragile X syndrome and the thing about the Fragile X is that, because autism is very vast and there's so many areas that could be contributing to that particular disorder of autism, one of the things about the Fragile X is that you can actually pinpoint exactly where the issue is, and that issue usually is on the X-chromosome. So, there's an area there that's very fragile and it looks like an arm that's basically broken, and that area has this gene, which is called the FMR1 gene. That gene is basically silent. As a result, when this gene is silent, it means that whatever that gene is responsible for, it will not do. So, that area is going to have issues, of course. So, some of the symptoms you see when this gene is silent, that patients have anxiety, hyperactivity, depression. They have increased sensitivity to epileptic type of seizures.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

As a result, you can really pinpoint that, "Okay, this part is silent so it's missing. This is what we see." So, it made it very easy to pinpoint where the issues are basically happening when you focus on this one particular niche, and that's what we actually did, so we focused on the Fragile X.

Vince Ferguson:

Sounds very interesting to me, as a layman. Wow. It really does. Now, your research has looked at phthalates or plasticizers and how it can cause neural behavioral abnormalities, similar to what is seen in individuals on the autism spectrum. Can you tell my listeners what phthalates are and why are they of concern?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Sure, absolutely. Right now phthalates, they're actually a huge hot topic, especially in the news. So, phthalates are plasticizers, and they're used to basically soften plastics. So, an example of a common phthalate that most people are aware of is bisphenol A, which is normally abbreviated as BPA, and this is the plasticizer that's sometimes used in baby bottles. So, there's a lot of commercials that say, "Oh, we're selling BPA-free bottles for babies." So, the phthalate we worked with, obviously it's in the same family, and this phthalate was called DBP, and that's dibutyl phthalate. This phthalate is an organic solvent, and this phthalate is used basically to mold a lot of plastics. So, plastic bottles like Poland Spring bottles, for example, toys, plastic plates, hospital supplies like catheters and tubing. They tends to use a lot of this DBP to basically help to mold it.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Now, the concern with these phthalates basically, like DBP, is that they're not stable, especially when you subject them to high temperatures. So what do I mean by high temperatures? These would be extreme conditions, like if you leave a plastic bottle with water and it's outside, for example, or if you heat up food on a plastic plate in the microwave. So, what happens is that that DBP becomes destabilized because it's actually in the plastic, so it becomes destabilized, and as a result, it leaches out of the plastic and into the environment. Now, in this case, the environment would be the water that you're consuming or the food that's basically on your plate. So, the reason why we picked DBP over BPA, bisphenol A, because there were a couple of studies that were done in 2000 and they found that there were high levels of DBP that were found in urine of the general population. So, that's why we focused on this particular phthalate.

Vince Ferguson:

Wow. That sounds amazing to me, because again, you talked about the microwave. So many of us have used microwave ovens to heat up our food.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Yes. Especially because a lot of food is delivered in plastic Tupperware, it's so much easier to throw that food in the microwave and eat immediately as such. Most people feel very lazy taking it out and basically putting it on a glass plate or ceramic plate. So, you could see how this could also be a problem.

Vince Ferguson:

Is it more of a problem for younger people or for adults?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Well, that's a very interesting question. So, what we did when we basically looked at our studies, we wanted to see, does it affect adults? Which generation does it affect more? So, some of the data that we basically got were different because when you become an adult, your brain has already been formed. So, what we found was that DBP would cause individuals to become sterile. So, it created different types of problems compared to a child. Well, maybe I shouldn't use a child. I should use mice because we did the study in mice. So, the offspring of mice basically exhibited behavior alterations that were similar to autism when they were exposed to this DBP. So, if you basically get exposed to it early on in development and your brain hasn't formed, then there's a possibility that you'd have these symptoms that may be related closer to autism.

Vince Ferguson:

And you guys used mice as an example.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

That's right. So, the reason why we use mice it's because their bodies are similar. So, their anatomy is pretty similar to ours. The structures inside their organs are similar to ours. So, of course you won't go ahead and do these studies on humans because I mean, that could be dangerous. So, as a result, we did them on mice. So, what we did was we took pregnant mice and we targeted a particular window. That window was around, I think, gestational day 10 to 20, because that particular window is when the brain of the pups in the womb of the pregnant mouse, their neurons starts to connect.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

As a result, we wanted to make sure that we gave that injection of DBP prior to their neuronal networks being formed so we could see, does this DBP really affect neuronal connections? And when they do get exposed to that DBP, what happens later on when they become grownups when we have to run studies on them? How are they going to behave? What's going to happen to some of the key proteins in their brains? So, that's what we were actually investigating.

Vince Ferguson:

So, what were your findings?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, what we did, of course, as I said, we injected the mice and we waited until they were born. What we did was we looked at their brains at different time points. At first natal day one, when they were just born on day one, day seven, and then also at two months of age, just to see where the changes were occurring. Behavior-wise, what we noticed basically was that their brains, basically, the way the neuro behavior was similar to what we see in autism. So, we did a couple of tests because when you're dealing with mice, you run different types of tests to see, how are they behaving? How do you see hyperactivity and anxiety and so on and so forth? So, what we found was that they had increased locomotive activity. They were extremely hyper. They had anxiety. When we did a learning and memory test, they had decreased in this test.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, in the test, you could teach them a couple of things and later on, they wouldn't remember. Also, they had a reduction in social interaction, meaning that when you presented... So, normally mice are curious. When you give them a new mouse, a stranger mouse, they will play with that mouse because they're trying to figure out who this mouse is. But when they were exposed to DBP early, they weren't really interacting. They would just sit in the corner. They won't socialize. So, the symptoms that we were obviously observing were consistent with the fact that they had this altered inhibitory system in their brain, or what we call the GABAergic system as well was actually affected.  And then what we did also after that... So, we noticed the behavior. So we wanted to see, well, the proteins that are responsible for making sure these behaviors are intact, what's going on with them? So, when we looked at them, we found that they were significantly down-regulated, meaning that the expression of them were less or they were basically affected as well.

Vince Ferguson:

That's amazing. Would you say that genetics play any part when it comes to autism in children?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Absolutely. I think it's basically both of them, environmental factors and genetics as well. Just like the way I've just mentioned, the Fragile X, so that's the particular area on the X chromosome that's affected. That would be genetics. And then obviously environmental, it would be something like dibutyl phthalate being exposed to the pregnant mother, for example, and then the child getting exposed to this DBP or dibutyl phthalate. So, it's definitely an interplay between both genetics and environmental factors.

Vince Ferguson:

Based on this study, you can safely say that humans should also be mindful of what we're putting in the microwave when it comes to heating up our food.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Absolutely. I mean, definitely we haven't run these studies in humans, but as I said, the anatomy of mice is very, very similar to the anatomy of humans. So, I would say one should be mindful of not heating up food on plastic plates. The other point that I would like to bring up while we're in that, because you just brought up a very good point, is that this DBP doesn't only penetrate our bodies orally. It could also go through the skin and inhalation as well. The reasons why we did these studies in low levels, because we wanted to see, because most people are not living by factories where you're making huge amounts of plastics, so how would these individuals get this DBP? So, clearly they have to be off low levels. So, what we also found is that, according to our research, is that DBP is used as a solvent as well.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

It basically helps to make makeup, especially for young women, right? Because young women are using a lot of makeup in their young age bearing childbearing years. So, they use makeup and as a result, if there's DBP in it, it has a potential to cross the skin, cross the placenta, and then target an unborn baby. Because the molecule itself is hydrophobic, and therefore it can cross very, very easily through all these areas and target the baby. So, we did some studies just looking to see, well, if the mother was exposed to DBP, how much of that does the mother get in her brain versus how much the child gets or the pup gets? What we found was that the mother does get significant amounts in her brain, but definitely that DBP did cross the placenta and it does go to the brain itself as well. So, that was proof that it actually does reach the brain of these pups, the mice.

Vince Ferguson:

Wow. So, how would someone know that there's DBP in the product that they're using? Is it in their ingredients?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

It should be listed. Right now, I believe by law, they should be listing whether products have DBP in there or not. That's why the baby bottles will say BPA-free. But most of the time, like when I buy my nail polish, for example, I always look for nail polish that says DBP-free so that it doesn't have it in there. The only thing is that I don't know what the rules and regulations are here in the United States, because I know that they're very slow in implementing some of these policies to stop DBP from being used as a solvent. I know in Europe, a lot of them have started to ban DBP as part of a solvent in terms of softening these plastics. But I think the U.S. hasn't quite gotten there yet, but hopefully eventually they will get there where they can ban this DBP from being used, and try and use alternatives that they can, just like what they're doing with the BPA, to see how they can soften plastic in a very different way.

Vince Ferguson:

Most definitely. This is very important. I can stay on this topic for a little longer, but we don't have that much time. Thank you.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Sure.

Vince Ferguson:

But also, I understand you are awarded the Marshall Plan Scholarship to conduct research in Austria at one of the hospitals in a town called Graz. Can you tell my listeners about that experience doing research abroad and also outside of the United States?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Yes. That was a phenomenal experience because you do all your research here in the United States, and you're always curious, and you're always wondering, "Well, how are things done elsewhere, abroad? Is it the same? Do they follow the same paradigms?" Because obviously the way that we get to graduate school and the way we apply with our GREs and the process is a little bit different than it is in Europe. So, I was really curious to see how this is actually done abroad. So, I did go to Austria first in 2011 to conduct research. At that time I was working with a team that were collaborating with seven EU countries on a project called biothane. So, they were looking at how food would affect the kidneys, and I was part of that team. And then a year later, I basically secured a scholarship to return back to Austria and work with another team, an amazing team in that same hospital in Graz and what they were working on was the brain.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

They were looking at the brain kidney axis and seeing how contrast media, this is the media that's used when you're doing a scan, like if you want to scan the kidney, for example, you'd use a contrast, so they were looking to see whether that's safe for the kidneys and is the kidney basically excreted that contrast without being harmed. I learned a lot because I moved, it opened me up to other areas instead of just focusing on the brain, but looking at how the brain can work with other areas as well and other organs in the periphery. So, yeah, as a result, I was really impressed with that time when I was over there, that I decided I could come back here and encourage other students in the university to also try and apply for that scholarship so they could have the same experience and opportunity that I had.

Vince Ferguson:

Wow. We're going to talk about that a little later on, but how long did you stay in Austria?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, I spent my summers there. So, the first, 2011, I spent about three, three and a half months. And then the following year, I also spent about that time as well, because I was still working on my research work back in the States. So, I couldn't stay out there longer than that.

Vince Ferguson:

Very nice. Good experience though, I would say, right?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Phenomenal. Yes. Really, really phenomenal experience.

Vince Ferguson:

Now, some of your other lab work has looked at the amino acid taurine and how that can reduce plasma glucose levels. Can this be a potential aid for those with diabetes?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, taurine's a great amino acid. Some people heard of it's been added to Red Bull, right?

Vince Ferguson:

Yes.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

People drink Red Bull, but most of the time they don't normally explain what the taurine actually does. But the thing with taurine is that it's a sulfur containing amino acid, and it's one of the most abundant free amino acids in many of our excitable tissues in our brain, skeletal muscles and cardiac muscles. One of the things about taurine, it's actually been important to prevent age-dependent decline of cognitive function. So, as a result, it's been shown and proven that when there's reduced taurine, and they've looked at that in mice that have a knockout for one of the steps that makes taurine, right? Because I'm trying to keep this very much in layman's terms and not use all of these fancy words.

Vince Ferguson:

Please, please, please. Thank you.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, when there's a reduction in taurine in mice, they've been reported to show severe functional histopathology in the visual system, skeletal system, the heart, the pancreas and the brain. But if you increase supplementation that's shown increased benefits acting through the same organs as well. So, what we wanted to do was we wanted to look and see what would happen if we gave our mice taurine. So, we had two groups of mice, one that weren't fed taurine chronically for two months and then the others that were. We wanted to see how would they deal with glucose or diabetes. So, what we did was that we injected both groups of mice, ones that had taurine and the other ones that didn't have taurine, with a glucose shot. It's called a glucose tolerance test.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Basically we wanted to see what the results would be. So, what we found basically was that the mice that were not fed with taurine were not able to handle the glucose very well. So, they started to have huge spikes in their plasma glucose levels about 30 minutes into the test. Where the mice that were fed with taurine, they gradually increased, but not to the level that the mice that were not fed with taurine got to, and they were hypoglycemic, closer to baseline levels through the entire two hours of the test that we conducted. So, these were great findings that we found. So, I'm hoping that at some point this would be work that we could look at in humans and see whether we could get the same findings as well, because again, most of our findings are being conducted in mice.

Vince Ferguson:

Based on these findings, would you advise individuals to take taurine?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, yeah, that's an interesting question. So, there was an individual that I knew that used to take taurine and consume it. He would state that, "You can use me as an example when you present your lab work because I'm living proof that taurine actually works. I'm a walking specimen." He used to have tremors, and he mentioned to me that when he took taurine, basically these tremors were reduced. Now, I think that's amazing. However, I can't give that type of medical advice nor am I allowed to, because we do our studies in mice. Most of these studies that we do in the lab, of course, like in any laboratory there's series of steps that one has to take. You do studies in mice before you move on to humans and you have a board that basically approves these different steps. But I'm hoping that, depending on how far this research goes, that maybe one day we try out human trials. That's something that I'd have to speak with my still current mentor, because I still work with him, Dr. El Idrissi.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

But the exciting thing is that we're part of a taurine society. It's called the Taurine Society, and we're part of a team that, every two years, we meet up to look and see what the benefits of taurine in research, and we share our data. So, we go to different countries around the world every two years, and we share our data. So, hopefully yes, that this one day would take place where we actually do some human trials.

Vince Ferguson:

Yeah. Because I know that taurine is also available in certain foods, right?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Yes. So, some foods will actually add taurine into their food because they believe that when you give it, it has benefits. But what we also found with taurine is that when you give it for a short period of time, we see the benefits. But what tends to happen if you give it chronically for too long, then the reverse happens. So, the mechanism changes. So, that's why it's important to investigate this further because chronically the mechanism is different from when you give it acutely for a short period of time. That's why I wouldn't be comfortable to recommend and tell anyone right now, because of the studies that we're running, that this is exactly what one should be doing as a human, and I'm not licensed to do that anyway.

Vince Ferguson:

Right. Right. Okay. So, I won't mention that you recommend this to everybody, so my listeners don't go out there and run out there and get a run on the taurine market. We'll stay away from that.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Yeah. For the meantime, until we've ironed out all the kinks, if any.

Vince Ferguson:

Yeah. Well, let me know, okay? Please. I want to know.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Absolutely. Absolutely. For sure.

Vince Ferguson:

Now, you are also the founder and president of Ekarus Global Science and the co-founder of PreMedPro. Are these charitable organizations?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Well, I could call them charitable because I know it's not a nonprofit because I haven't been getting funds for it. So, this is something that I started because I saw the need for programs like this because at the college level, I was part of a minority program. Well, it was a program that was substantially increasing the number of underrepresented individuals in the STEM discipline. This program was called the LSM Program, and this was founded by Louis Stokes. So, it was called the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. What that program did for me was wonders, because it basically paid for my Master's at the time when I was taking my Master's and it made pretty much all of us who were in that program do extensive research, go and publish and not focus on working, but focus on our education.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

As a result, I realized the importance of programs like this. So, I wanted to start something at a high school level because I felt it's always good to grab the students while their minds are still young and we can still mold them. I figured that's the perfect time. I like to work with underrepresented students because sometimes we don't have the mentorships that other groups may be lucky to have. I've used my previous experience and said, "Well, it's important to set up something like this." So Ekarus focuses on exposing students to research at the college level, because it's much more... How can I put it? It's definitely of a higher level than you would do at the high school level, because some of the techniques that we use or we teach the students are very different. As a result, it makes them extremely competitive when they apply to schools out there, like colleges or even prestigious colleges.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Now, I didn't only want to stay within only doing the research component, so I also wanted to help medical students, so that's how PreMedPro came about as well. I was working with my colleague, Dr. Christine Bishara, and we decided that that would be something great, where we could bring in research and medical type of guidance to young students who may be interested. Bottom line is that when you expose students early on to touching the microscope or teaching them how to use a stethoscope or using a blood pressure cuff or machine, students get to feel what it's like to be in these particular fields and then they don't think that they're so far off. Also, when they see individuals like yourself, maybe they see a minority, a female wearing a lab coat, it doesn't look foreign and they could say, "This is something I would like to be, and I know it's possible because if she could do it, so can I."

Vince Ferguson:

Wow. Love it. Love it. Love it.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Thank you.

Vince Ferguson:

Really, role models are so important. Mentors, mentorship is so important and that's what you're doing.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Absolutely.

Vince Ferguson:

It's great.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

It happened to me. I've had great mentors. The process itself is very vigorous to get into, and that guidance is key because those mentors have walked that journey. They know what it takes. They know when these deadlines are. So, it's important that you also teach the younger generation that's coming about that these are the deadlines, so this is how you have to be vigorous. You have to start off in college with a 4.0 GPA and try and keep it at a 4.0, so you don't ruin your chances of trying to get into medical school, for example.

Vince Ferguson:

Do students working with Ekarus get the opportunity to conduct research abroad?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Yes. So, one of the things that we started with some of my mentors... So, there's one mentor I haven't mentioned who was part of the LSM program, Dr. Claude Brathwaite, who played a huge role as well in my journey in becoming a neuroscientist. So, he started the Global CUNY project that allowed college students to basically go abroad and do research. What we decided was we could expand that and start doing it in different parts of the world, of course. So, I thought that this would be great for Ekarus as well, if the high school students are able to do that, where they can go abroad as well and do research. So, some of the countries... My mentor, Dr. Abdeslem El Idrissi, from Morocco, so we usually send students to Morocco to do research out there.

Vince Ferguson:

Wow.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

We allow them to also experience the culture by going to cities like Casablanca, Fez, Taounate, for example. So, as a result, this is how I decided that high school students also should be given that opportunity to go abroad and start doing the research. Because if they're doing it here in the States, then there's no difference if they can do it abroad as well.

Vince Ferguson:

Wow. That is so amazing. That is so powerful. I really appreciate-

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Thank you.

Vince Ferguson:

Yes. What you're doing is awesome, and I actually have more questions, but I'm not going to ask them because I'll be on here for hours with you, Dr. Sidime.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

No problem.

Vince Ferguson:

But where can my listeners find out more about you and your work?

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

So, I have a website www.ekarus.com. That's spelled E-K-A-R-U-S.com. So if you go there, you'll be able to see information about Ekarus, and also the PreMedPro as well. If you go to www.premedpro.com, that also will lead you to the medical part for the high school students. I'm also on Instagram as well, and the Instagram handle is @ekarusglobalscience. So again, spelled Ekarus the same way, global science, all one word. So, we're on Instagram as well. When they go on, they'll be able to see young high school students like themselves, minorities as well, conducting research in a lab, presenting their research, doing dissections, so that they can get a feel. And also speaking as well because they teach other students what they're doing in the lab as well, so that they can get insights on what's actually happening at Ekarus.

Vince Ferguson:

Dr. Francoise Sidime, on behalf of Body Sculpt of New York and Six Weeks to Fitness, I truly want to thank you for coming on my show today.

Dr. Francoise Sidime:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. The honor is really mine. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Vince Ferguson:

To my readers and listeners, I truly hope this program was informative, encouraging, and inspiring, and that you will continue tuning in to our Six Weeks to Fitness podcast. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for the show, please leave them on my Six Weeks to Fitness blog at www.sixweekstofitness.com or email me at vince@sixweeks.com, and please don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss any future episodes.

Direct download: Episode_164_Dr._Francoise_Sidime.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:47pm EST