Italian scientists have revealed that even limited exposure to environmental pollutants can trigger gene reprogramming, and thus increase an individual's risk of developing cancer and other diseases.
University of Milan researchers have shown that inhaling certain environmental pollutants can damage DNA as early as three days.
"Recently, changes in gene programming due to a chemical transformation called methylation have been found in the blood and tissues of lung cancer patients," said investigator Dr. Andrea Baccarelli, assistant professor of Applied Biotechnology at the University of Milan.
"We aimed at investigating whether exposure to particulate matter induced changes in DNA methylation in blood from healthy subjects who were exposed to high levels of particulate matter in a foundry facility," Baccarelli added.
The researchers compared the blood samples of 63 healthy subjects who worked in a foundry near Milan, and found significant changes in four genes associated with tumour suppression.
"The changes were detectable after only three days of exposure to particulate matter, indicating that environmental factors need little time to cause gene reprogramming which is potentially associated with disease outcomes," said Baccarelli.
"As several of the effects of particulate matter in foundries are similar to those found after exposure to ambient air pollution, our results open new hypotheses about how air pollutants modify human health.
"The changes in DNA methylation we observed are reversible and some of them are currently being used as targets of cancer drugs," he added.
Baccarelli said that study results indicated that early interventions might be designed to reverse gene programming to normal levels, reducing the health risks of exposure.
The findings were presented at the 105th International Conference of the American Thoracic Society in San Diego.