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Phthalates exposure leads to placental gene changes

18 October 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1117

Exposure to phthalates may affect gene activity in the placenta.  

Researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle, have looked at the exposure of phthalates, a chemical found in many plastics, and how these may affect pregnant women. The study found an association between high levels of phthalates and a change in gene expression in the placenta.  

'We know that phthalate exposure in pregnancy is associated with numerous adverse child health outcomes, including premature birth and behavioural changes in early childhood,' said Dr Alison Paquette, assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Washington. 'In this study, we attempt to identify mechanisms that may help explain the associations we see between prenatal phthalate exposure and child health outcomes.'   

The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, consisted of 760 women enrolled in the Conditions Affecting Neurocognitive Development and Learning in Early Childhood (CANDLE) study, which was conducted at the University of Tennessee Health Science Centre. The researchers at the University of Washington used a subset of this studies' population data. Urine samples were taken from women in their second and third trimesters, along with placenta samples after giving birth. The samples were analysed to understand the effect phthalates had on gene activity.

The researchers found that higher levels of phthalates in urine were associated with expression of 38 genes and 27 biological pathways. One pathway was prominent in placenta function, affecting how the placental cells adhere to each other, a vital part of normal function.

Additionally, altering biological pathways can affect fatty acid development, which is needed for fetal growth within the placenta. A change here could interfere with the placental functioning of transporting essential substances to the fetus and impact long term fetal growth.   

'Our findings suggest exposure to phthalates during pregnancy is associated with changes in gene expression in the placenta.' Researchers plan to study exactly how phthalates might cause these changes in gene expression and how the changes in gene expression might affect the functioning of fetal cells Dr Paquette added.

Other studies have suggested phthalate exposure may lead to decreased pregnancy length, asthma in early childhood and eczema development. In combination, these studies also implicated phthalate exposure to problems from infancy until middle childhood. 

Dr Paquette and her team state that more work is needed to understand how phthalate exposure might disrupt placental gene activity and placental function.

A comprehensive assessment of associations between prenatal phthalate exposure and the placental transcriptomic landscape
Environmental Health Perspectives |  3 September 2021
Phthalates linked to changes in gene activity in placenta
University of Washington School of Medicine |  14 October 2021
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