AIRPOLLUTION_EXPOSURE - Respiratory health of children and air pollution

Last updated on 14-4-2023 by Sigrid De Keersmaecker
Project duration:
January 7, 2016
December 31, 2022

In short

The poor air quality including high levels of particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen oxides, represents a major threat to public health and especially for the most vulnerable population like children or elderly. Biomarkers, used as measurable indicators of  exposure, effect and susceptibility, may help to monitor children and take decisions to limit the pollutant exposure of the population. 

This pioneering project aims to collect and analyse biomarkers in urine and saliva of children in order to develop a method to measure the effects of air pollution on their respiratory system. If a successful conclusion is obtained, a larger-scale study might be possible in the future.

Project description

The poor air quality, including high levels of particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen oxides, represents a major threat to public health and especially for the most vulnerable population strata (cfr. young children). Monitoring exposure, effect and susceptibility in children’s cohorts using biomarkers may help to understand the complex relationship between cause and effect and is also of critical importance for health care management purposes, public health decision making, and primary prevention activities. The most commonly used source of biomarkers is serum but it requires a blood sampling, which for ethical and practical reasons is not feasible in most epidemiological studies involving young children. Therefore, using biomarkers measured in non-invasive body fluids is a necessary alternative for monitoring the respiratory health in children. 
Different types of biomarkers exist, with amongst them proteins, genetic variants and epigenetic changes. As reported in the literature, multiple proteins have been studied to assess the integrity of the deep lung epithelium which reflects the respiratory health status and most of them were measured in serum. So far, no study has used urine protein biomarkers in young children to assess the integrity of the deep lung epithelium because no valuable protein is known for measuring the confounding effect for adjustment of variations in diuresis and renal handling of proteins. Some studies have associated genetic polymorphisms to the development of hyper sensibility response or respiratory diseases. Few prospective studies have investigated how epigenetics affected by environmental exposure influences the health response, showing differentially methylated genes or differentially expressed miRNAs after exposure to air pollution. Not many studies investigate the combination of these 3 types of biomarkers. Future biomonitoring studies should integrate all protein, genetic and epigenetic aspects in order to optimise the use of potential health biomarkers found in non-invasive samples and consequently to reduce the potential risk of respiratory disorders for the (substrata of the) population.  

The main goal of this project  is to select valuable specific biomarkers (protein, genetic variants and epigenetic changes) in non-invasive samples (saliva and urine) and to use this set of biomarkers to monitor the respiratory health, airway damage or inflammation and the effect of air pollution in young children (RESPIKID). This will provide missing scientific knowledge, necessary for the preparation, implementation and evaluation of federal policies/strategies.  In order to investigate this hypothesis and its feasibility, a pilot monitoring is proposed (PMOLLUGENIX). Through this pilot study an integrated monitoring study using the selected set of protein, genetic and epigenetic biomarkers is proposed as well as the identification of the bottlenecks of conducting this type of field study. This will allow for the assessment of the feasibility of a future large-scale epidemiological study.


Alfred Bernard
Tim Nawrot
Christophe Stroobants
Jordy Vercauteren
John R Balmes

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