University of Bayreuth, Press release No. 052/2021, 28 April 2021
New European project investigates health effects of plastic particles on humans
Researching the effects of plastic particles on the human body and developing a health policy strategy for assessing the resulting risks is the goal of the new European research network PlasticsFatE. The University of Bayreuth, together with 26 other universities, institutes, and organisations from ten EU member states, is participating in the project. The European Union is funding the four-year project to the tune of € 6 million, with the University of Bayreuth receiving more than € 465,000. The project was launched on 28 April 2021 at a virtual kick-off event for its partners.
Prof. Dr. Christian Laforsch and Anja Ramsperger M.Sc. discuss experimental setups to study the uptake of micro- and nanoplastic particles by human cell lines.
PlasticsFatE is the first European research project to systematically address the effects of plastic particles on human health. The name stands for "Plastics Fate and Effects in the human body". The research partners will investigate plastic particles of different sizes, ranging from microplastic particles, which are smaller than five millimetres, to tiny nanoplastic particles, which are smaller than one ten-thousandth of a millimetre (100 nanometres). They also wish to identify the health effects of additives that are added to plastics during their industrial production, as well as the effects of plastic particles on whose surface pollutants from the environment accumulate.
With the aim of developing an in-depth and differentiated scientific understanding of the health consequences of plastic particles, methods, and research technologies from the natural, environmental, health, and social sciences will be brought together in the new network.
"At present, our knowledge of the health effects of micro- and nanoplastics is still very limited - not least because methods for detecting the smallest plastic particles in human tissue are only now being developed. A central task of the new research network is therefore to set up a comprehensive measurement and testing programme with which we can test the methods available today and specifically improve them with regard to their performance for micro- and nanoplastics research," says Prof. Dr. Christian Laforsch, who heads the research work at the University of Bayreuth.
Project member Anja Ramsperger M.Sc. during a cell culture experiment on the potential effects of plastic particles on humans.
In the focus of Bayreuth research: Uptake pathways, environmental influences, transport routes in the organism
The work at the University of Bayreuth is particularly concerned with the question of which uptake pathways, and in what quantities, plastic particles enter the human body. This can happen via a wide variety of foodstuffs, for example vegetables, fruit, drinks, or fish, but also through cosmetics, or via the air we breathe. In addition, the effects of plastic particles on humans are to be be investigated.
"In model systems, we will analyse how micro- and nanoparticles are taken up by human cells, transported within the cells, and passed on to the surrounding tissue. One aspect that should not be underestimated here are environmental influences that can change the properties of particles and thus facilitate their path into human cells," says project collaborator Anja Ramsperger M.Sc., who, together with other Bayreuth scientists, has already arrived at important new findings on this issue (Science Advances, 2020).
The Bayreuth researchers will not only work with conventional two-dimensional cell cultures in which the cells multiply on the glass or plastic surface of a petri dish. Novel three-dimensional cell cultures and tissue models will also be used, making it possible to realistically simulate the effects of particles – for example in the gastrointestinal tract or in respiratory organs. "With these research techniques, we will be able to gain new insights into how long these particles remain in cell tissue, and what possible effects they might have over longer periods of time," says Ramsperger.
Cells are grown in cell culture flasks and used for further experiments
A framework of risk assessment
The research partners involved in PlasticsFatE hope to use the knowledge they gain over the coming years to develop a scientifically sound framework of risk assessment for micro- and nanoplastics in relation to humans. This concept will for the first time comprehensively consider the growing prevalence of micro- and nanoplastics in the human environment, and the resulting pathways by which they enter the human body.
"The research results should enable us to provide those responsible in government and industry with well-founded recommendations for action that contribute to the protection of human health - both within the EU and on a global level," emphasises Laforsch, who also heads the DFG (German Research Foundation) "Microplastics" Collaborative Research Centre at the University of Bayreuth.