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In the last years, scientific research showed that micro- and nanoplastics can be found in different food types that we consume, in our lungs and in our blood. So microplastics are everywhere but are they also harmful?
Design of a 3 dimensional human intestinal model
Schematic setup of the 3D co-culture model consisting of human intestinal cells (green) and immune cells (red and blue) including the nebulization outline and the microplastic exposure pattern
To tackle this question, we designed a three dimensional human intestinal in vitro co-culture model, that can be exposed to different environmental relevant microplastic particles such as polyethylene, polystyrene, polypropylene, PET used for packaging, tire wear from cars, polyurethane used for shoe soles and polyamide, which is the main material used for fishing nets or fibers.
The model that we designed consists of real human intestinal cells and human blood derived immune cells. This setting allows to test different materials of various sizes on possible adverse effects such as cytotoxicity or inflammatory responses during different time points, mimicking ingestion of food.
In our study, we tested microplastics between 50 - 500 microns (0.05 - 0.5 mm) in size at different time points 6h, 24h and 48 hours. We have found out, that particles at this sizes do not cause any significant cytotoxicity or release of inflammatory molecules called cytokines.
However, as this is the first study trying to assess the possible effects of microplastics on human health, extrapolation of these results to humans is critical. Further research will be required to determine the effects of smaller plastic fragments, and also chronic exposure of the particles to the intestine barrier has to be considered.
Exploring the direct responses of microplastics on human
The possible adverse effects of environmentally relevant microplastics upon their accumulation in the human body and on the human immune system have not yet been investigated. This project aims to fill this knowledge gap by performing the world’s first study on the effects on human immune cells when exposed to environmentally relevant microplastics at sizes below 50 microns (0.05mm).
Human immune cell (macrophage) exposed to polystyrene microplastics of 5 microns in size
To do so, we will melt process different plastics, incorporate a thermostable fluorophore into the material and use cryo- and ball milling techniques to prepare microplastic particles at sizes below 50 microns. The incorporated fluorophore will allow us to further detect and visualise the particles and to investigate the interaction with the human immune cells.
Human macrophages (red) interacting, ingesting PET microplastics (green) of sizes below 20 microns
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