discoveries magazine

Cancer in the Air

Air pollution could be more damaging to health than previously expected.

Pollution graphic

James Steinberg

Take a deep, calming breath before reading this news: While air pollution has long been linked to disease, a recent Cedars-Sinai study reveals how nickel particles and other airborne matter influence genetics in a potentially damaging way.

Prolonged exposure to such pollutants triggers inflammation and activates genes that could lead to cancer or neurodegenerative disorders, according to rodent research led by Julia Ljubimova, MD, PhD, director of the Nanomedicine Research Center at Cedars-Sinai, and conducted in collaboration with investigators at UC Irvine.

The scientists found that coarse particles infiltrated rats’ systems through the lungs—where trace metals enter the bloodstream and then the brain and nose.

Ljubimova was surprised by the rapid onset of observed brain changes.

“A smoker usually has to smoke for 20 years to develop lung cancer,” she says. “I didn’t expect that we would detect brain genomic changes after only a few months of exposure.”

Although the investigation focused specifically on air quality in the Los Angeles Basin, its findings also could apply to other major cities, Ljubimova says.

“Our modern society is becoming increasingly urbanized,” she adds. “This trend underscores the need for additional research on the biology of air pollution-induced organ damage, along with a concerted effort aimed at reducing ambient air pollution levels.”