Investigating Nanoparticles: How They Impact Unborn Children and Placental Function

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Investigating Nanoparticles: How They Impact Unborn Children and Placental Function

Human life begins with a single egg cell, which eventually develops into a complex organism composed of trillions of cells. Throughout this intricate process, the placental barrier plays a crucial role in safeguarding the developing tissues and organs by keeping pathogens and foreign substances at bay. However, recent research by Tina Bürki and her team from Empa’s Particles-Biology Interactions laboratory in St. Gallen sheds light on how nanoparticles may challenge this protective mechanism.

Investigating Nanoparticles: How They Impact Unborn Children And Placental Function

The Nanoparticle Conundrum

Nanoparticles are ubiquitous—they exist in numerous consumer products and are also generated through wear and tear or combustion processes. We encounter these tiny particles through our food, cosmetics, and even the air we breathe. Unfortunately, some nanoparticles are suspected of harming unborn babies, potentially leading to low birth weight, autism, and respiratory diseases.

The Placental Barrier and Nanoparticles

While we know that the placental barrier can retain or delay the transport of nanoparticles to the embryo, the exact impact on fetal tissue remains unclear. Surprisingly, damage occurs even when no particles are directly detected in the fetus. To unravel this mystery, Bürki’s team collaborates with clinical partners from the Cantonal Hospital of St. Gallen and research institutions in Geneva, Amsterdam, and Düsseldorf.

Human Placentas: The Key to Understanding Nanoparticle Effects

To study nanoparticle effects, the team utilises fully functional human placentas obtained after planned caesarean sections. Human placental tissue provides unique insights into nanoparticle transport and their impact due to its specific structure, metabolism, and interactions.

Disrupting Messenger Substances

The experiments reveal that nanoparticles disrupt the production of critical messenger substances within placental tissue. These messengers play a pivotal role in embryonic development, including blood vessel formation. Interestingly, the altered messenger substances from nanoparticle-treated placentas lead to less dense, coarse-meshed blood vessel systems in laboratory models using chicken eggs.

The Secretome: Unraveling the Impact

Researchers are now investigating the entire set of messenger substances released by nanoparticle-treated placentas—the so-called secretome. While the nervous system seems unaffected, other disorders triggered indirectly by nanoparticles remain to be explored. Considering the potential impact on pregnant women’s health and fetal development, these findings should inform risk assessments of nanomaterials.

In collaboration with the Cantonal Hospital of St. Gallen, further research aims to decode the intricate relationship between nanoparticles, placental function, and embryonic health.

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