Pearl for groundbreaking research into microplastics in the placenta

There are growing signs that microplastics and nanoplastics can affect human health. In September last year it was announced that microplastics in the placenta can cause alterations in the metabolism. This was discovered in one of the 15 breakthrough projects funded by ZonMw as part of its Microplastics and Health programme. The study, led by Juliette Legler, has been awarded a Pearl award because it is a textbook example of how multidisciplinary collaboration can quickly achieve a breakthrough.

The breakthrough project on microplastics in the placenta showed in just a short time that tiny plastic particles are present in the placenta and amniotic fluid. The researchers also saw that microplastics are absorbed by placental cells, where they have a subtle effect on the genes involved in hormone production and metabolism. This raises the question of whether microplastics can affect the growth and development of the child. In September 2022 the team released the news of their findings, after publishing them in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Multidisciplinary collaboration

The study of microplastics in the placenta and amniotic fluid is one of 15 breakthrough projects on the health risks of microplastics. Legler is being given a ZonMw Pearl Award for her role in connecting both the members of her own team, and several different breakthrough projects. “The project was only possible because several disciplines – toxicology, cell biology, analytical chemistry and paediatrics – worked together”, Prof. Dick Vethaak told us. “This successful collaboration allowed us to deal with lots of challenges and develop new ideas. We faced challenges with plastic-free working and refining chemical analysis methods, for example.”

Global renown

Thanks to the efforts of Legler the project became a huge success, and is being continued by a public-private consortium, MOMENTUM, consisting of 12 research institutes and 15 industrial partners. Legler is also coordinating the consortium, along with Dick Vethaak. “Legler’s skilled and inspiring leadership brought the different parties together, and her management of the multidisciplinary project was outstanding”, said Vethaak. “She’s always enthusiastic and motivates everybody.” The consortium now enjoys global renown for its work on the health effects of microplastics.

Social impact

“The placenta project produced interesting results that underline the urgency of follow-up research, which is how the consortium came about,” explained Frank Pierik, Microplastics & Health Programme Manager. “A robust line of research has grown out of a small breakthrough project. This unique study was one of the first to demonstrate the presence of microplastics in the placenta and amniotic fluid, as well as alterations to the metabolism of the placenta. The project is a model for the 15 breakthrough projects, highlighting the fact that we know very little about the implications of exposure to minuscule plastic particles, both prior to birth and throughout our lives.” The breakthrough projects have detected effects of microplastics in other vital parts of the body, such as the intestines, lungs, brain and immune system. As well as in the placenta and amniotic fluid, the plastic particles have also been found in the blood. The results from all 15 breakthrough projects will therefore have a huge social and scientific impact.

Follow-up research urgently needed

The health effects of microplastics will become apparent mainly in the longer term. There is an urgent need for follow-up research into the impact of these new pollutants on pregnancy and the development of the child. “We still know too little about the health risks of microplastics and related chemicals and our exposure to them”, said Vethaak. “We also have to closely monitor the presence of plastic particles in the human placenta and amniotic fluid. So follow-up studies will need to recruit larger numbers of donors to confirm the initial results.” The next step is to identify the risks to humans, through epidemiological research, for example, so that, if necessary, we can eventually protect the health of future generations.

Left picture: Veronique Timmerhuis (ZonMw) and Juliette Legler | Right picture: from left to right; Marja Lamoree, Dick Vethaak, Juliette Legler, Hanna Dusza.