Diesel in the Air

Scientists discover how diesel exhaust particles damage lung air pathways

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Researchers from Duke University have discovered how nanoparticles in diesel fumes can harm cells in the lungs.

In addition, the scientists found that the degree of damage inflicted by such fumes depends on the genetic make-up of the individual. Published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study could prompt new treatments for people with airway diseases.

According to the American Lung Association, almost every major US city is threatened by unhealthy air pollution levels, placing nearly 6 out of 10 Americans at risk of lung diseases and death. Particles from diesel fumes are a major component of urban smog, which contributes heavily to overall air pollution.

The Duke University researchers demonstrated how diesel exhaust particles are particularly damaging to the lungs. When the core (consisting of carbon, organic chemicals, and metals) of these particles makes contact with cilia (brush-like surfaces that clear mucus from airways), lung airway cells respond to the chemicals in the particle cores by growing or becoming cancerous.

The researchers also found that approximately 75 percent of people have a small genetic difference that predisposes them to a heightened response to air pollutants. This gene variant increases the production of a molecule called MMP-1, which destroys lung tissue and puts people at a greater risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The other 25 percent of people have lower levels of MMP-1, which may explain why they are less affected by air pollution.

According to Wolfgang Liedtke, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Duke Department of Medicine and attending physician in the Duke Clinics for Pain and Palliative Care, this study's findings offer new avenues for developing treatments for those most susceptible to airway damage caused by air pollution. He says that a large number of people around the world can be helped if scientists figure out how to slow the production of MMP-1.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 18, 2011
Last Updated:
January 19, 2011