Micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs, plastic particles ≤ 5 mm) are increasingly found in our environment and our food. Exposure of humans to MNPs is most prominent via the oral route (ingestion) and respiratory route (inhalation). Recent findings indicate that it is highly likely that MNPs can cross the epithelial barrier in the airways/lungs and in the intestines (and thus may exert detrimental biological effects in the human body). One of the specific goals of this project is to further investigate the potential and mechanistics of the ability of MNPs to cross these epithelial barriers. Secondly, this project aims to identify any potential detrimental biological effects of MNPs on the epithelial cells that make up these barriers.
To address these research questions, this project will deploy simple and more advanced in vitro cell culture systems. These will include cell lines as well as human primary cells of airway/lung- as well as intestinal epithelial cells. Simple cell systems will include cell lines of the cell types of interest exposed to MNPs in submerged culture conditions. More advanced in vitro models will include air-liquid interface (ALI) systems (to mimic inhalation-based exposure of bronchial epithelial cells to MNPs) as well as co-culture models of primary bronchial epithelial cells with different cell types that make up the cellular micro-environment of these cells (including immune cells).
The effects of MNPs on these different intestinal and airway/lung epithelial cells in these models will be evaluated by assessing parameters related to cell viability, oxidative stress, DNA damage and inflammation. In addition, as mitochondria are key players in most of these above-mentioned cellular processes (including oxidative stress, cell death and inflammation), effects of MNPs on mitochondrial function and the molecular pathways controlling this (mitochondrial biogenesis vs mitophagy) will be investigated.
In this project, relevant read-out parameters will be investigated by using state-of-the-art molecular biology tools and in the end this should result in a PhD thesis. Furthermore, the results of these studies will be used to assess whether or not the implementation of novel guidelines related to the generation of MNPs in manufacturing/production processes is warranted in order to reduce human exposure and detrimental health effects of these particles.
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