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Ambient air pollutants: Genes determine the extent of inflammatory reaction

Genetic predisposition is a key factor in determining how individuals respond to ambient air pollutants. Scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum München have discovered that people with certain genetic variations have a stronger inflammatory response than those who do not have this genetic predisposition. The results of the study have been published in the Environment International journal.

R. Pickford (left), A. Schneider; source: Helmholtz Zentrum München

Air pollutants such as fine particulate matter can pose a risk to health. A link has been established between air pollution caused by fine particulate matter and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Air pollutants can induce oxidative stress in the human body, resulting in a systemic inflammatory reaction. How strong this response is seems also to be determined by an individual’s genetic make-up, according to the international team of scientists headed by Professor Annette Peters and Dr. Alexandra Schneider of the Institute of Epidemiology II (EPI II) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München (HMGU).

Scientists from the HMGU, the Environmental Protection Agency (USA) as well as the universities of Augsburg, Ulm and Rochester (USA) analyzed inflammatory parameters in a total of 1,765 blood samples gathered from various patient collectives over a period of 21 months. Hourly air measurements were taken to determine air pollution levels.

Specific gene variations cause a stronger inflammatory reaction
The study has shown that patients who display genetic polymorphisms (gene variations) in glutathione S-transferase M1 (GSTM1) as well as genetic alterations in the C-reactive pro¬tein (CRP) gene or the fibrinogen gene, have significantly higher concentrations of inflamma¬tory biomarkers in their blood – particularly when higher levels of air pollution are present. 

“Our results support the hypothesis that air pollutants can lead to inflammatory responses – especially in genetically predisposed individuals,” says lead author Dr. Regina Pickford, née Rückerl. “These kinds of inflammatory processes precede widespread diseases such as cardiovascular or metabolic diseases.”

Environmental factors and lifestyle play a substantial role in the development of widespread diseases in Germany, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. The Helmholtz Zentrum München aims to develop new approaches to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of the most common diseases.

Further research results on the subject of particulate matter and health:

Increased air pollution leads to increased heart attack risk
Pollution caused by fine particulate matter increases the risk of insulin resistance in childhood

Further information

Rückerl, R. et al. (2014), Associations between Ambient Air Pollution and Blood Markers of Inflammation and Coagulation/Fibrinolysis in Susceptible Populations, Environment International, Volume 70, September 2014, Pages 32–49

Link to publication

 Helmholtz Zentrum München the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich and has about 2,100 staff members. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 34,000 staff members.

Institute of Epidemiologie II (EPI II) focuses on the assessment of environmental and lifestyle risk factors which jointly affect major chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and mental health. Research builds on the unique resources of the KORA cohort, the KORA myocardial infarction registry, and the KORA aerosol measurement station. Aging-related phenotypes have been added to the KORA research portfolio within the frame of the Research Consortium KORA-Age. The institute’s contributions are specifically relevant for the population as modifiable personal risk factors are being researched that could be influenced by the individual or by improving legislation for the protection of public health.


Scientific contact

Prof. Annette Peters, Helmholtz Zentrum München - German Research Center for Environmental Health (GmbH), Institute of Epidemiology II, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg - Tel. +49 89 3187-4566 -