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Air pollution exposure during pregnancy is a silent threat to newborns

Experts have identified a link between prenatal exposure to air pollution and detrimental effects on the cell processes of newborn babies. 

The findings were presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress by Dr. Olga Gorlanova, a research physician at the University Children’s Hospital, University of Basel, Switzerland.

According to Dr. Gorlanova, there are visible alterations in proteins of babies born to mothers exposed to air pollution during pregnancy. This could shed light on the mysterious autophagy process, where cells “self-eat” in response to stress.

Varying responses

Dr. Gorlanova highlighted that even among healthy newborns, the responses to maternal exposure to air pollution during pregnancy varied. 

This suggests that the susceptibility levels among babies differ, making some more vulnerable than others, even in areas characterized by relatively low pollution levels.

Prenatal air pollution

Previously, Dr. Gorlanova and her team had explored the adverse effects of prenatal air pollution exposure on newborns’ lung functions and immune systems. Their latest research investigated the impact on proteins crucial for autophagy, aging, and cell remodeling.

The experts analyzed data from the Bern Basel Infant Lung Development (BILD) cohort study, which began in 1999 and aims to recruit 1,000 babies by 2025. 

The study aims to analyze the role of genetics and the environment, particularly air pollution, in the lung development of babies.

Focus of the study

The research focused on pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) – tiny particles less than 10 microns in diameter. PM10 usually originates from sources like vehicle emissions, tire and brake wear, and smoke. 

The team measured 11 different proteins in the cord blood of 449 healthy newborns. 

What the researchers discovered

The researchers discovered a profound association between NO2 and PM10 exposure and changes in proteins crucial for autophagy.

“Our results indicate that NO2, a pollutant formed mainly from traffic emissions, is associated with increased levels of Beclin-1 protein, which is central to initiating autophagy,” explained Dr Gorlanova.

“Exposure to higher NO2 was also linked to decreased levels of SIRT1, which is a protein that plays a protective role in stress resistance, inflammation and aging. IL-8 is a protein active in certain inflammatory cells.”

Varying effects

“We grouped the babies into four distinct clusters according to the levels of air pollution they were exposed to while in the womb. The four clusters all had similar concentrations of the proteins being studied but had differences their exposure to NO2 and PM10 air pollution.”

“One cluster had low concentrations of nine proteins, while another cluster, consisting of seven percent of all the babies, had higher levels of proteins that are involved in inflammatory and remodeling processes: IL-8 and IL-1B.” 

“Both these groups of newborns had been exposed to lower, although differing, levels of prenatal air pollution than the other two groups.” 

Dr. Gorlanova said the findings suggest that healthy newborns have an individual response pattern to air pollution. “We think that this may be an indication that some babies are more vulnerable to it than others.”

Impacts on human cells

“Additionally, our work adds to the growing body of evidence that autophagy-related mechanisms may be involved in how human cells react to air pollution. The findings are consistent with evidence from tissue and animal research. Further exploration of these mechanisms may help to better understand the deleterious effects of pollution on infants.”

Next, the researchers plan to examine whether babies with distinct protein response patterns to air pollution will suffer from more breathing problems during infancy and childhood compared to those that do not show the same protein responses.

Study implications

Professor Marielle Pijnenburg, who was not involved with this research, is an associate professor of Pediatric Pulmonology and head of the Department of Pediatric Respiratory Medicine and Allergology at Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that air pollution can affect the health of children before and after they are born. It contributes to other research showing that autophagy-related mechanisms may be involved in how human cells react to air pollution,” said Professor Pijnenburg.

“We need to know more about how these mechanisms can affect the health of lungs, and we need to understand why some new-borns seem to be more susceptible to air pollution than others.”

Clear message for policymakers

“However, we already have enough evidence from this and other studies, to be sending a message loud and clear to governments and policymakers: air pollution damages people’s health, and the effects can be seen from before birth.” 

“We should all be re-doubling our efforts to reduce air pollution as quickly and as far as possible. This will not only improve the health of populations and reduce costs associated with treating diseases caused by air pollution, but will also help the environment at a time when the climate emergency is becoming more and more apparent as every day passes.”

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