Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research investigates the relationship between environmental influences and stem cell development for the first time
Environmental contaminants, such as smoking, are harmful to the human organism in relation to the occurrence of allergies. This is known. Until now, researchers had never investigated whether and to what extent environmental contaminants also affect allergy-relevant stem cells. For the first time a team at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) has found evidence for this: Smoking affects the development of peripheral allergy-relevant stem cells in the blood. In order to present this result Dr. Irina Lehmann and Dr. Kristin Wei-e chose a new scientific path: The combination of exposure analysis and stem cell research.
Stem cells are not specialised, propagate without limit and can develop to different cell types. From these the different cell and tissue types of the human organism, including the allergy-promoting eosinophil granulocytes, are differentiated. Progenitor cells, e.g. eosinophil/basophilic progenitors, which mature in the bone marrow and are then washed out into the bloodstream - the so-called periphery - function as a link between unspecialised stem cells and specialised tissue and organ cells. Until now, whether and to what extent environmental contaminants affect this maturation and release has not been investigated.
The UFZ team of Dr. Irina Lehmann and Dr. Kristin Wei-e undertook their investigations from this point. Two facts were already known from a number of earlier studies: Firstly that the blood of allergy sufferers - whether children or adults - shows evidence of increased eosinophil/basophil progenitor levels. Secondly, that the occurrence of such peripheral progenitors in the blood of the umbilical cord indicates a higher risk for subsequent allergies. For the first time, the hypothesis which Dr. Kristin Wei-e and Dr. Irina Lehmann developed on this basis combined this knowledge from stem cell research with the results of many years of exposure research at the UFZ. The researchers characterise their approach in the following way: "We wanted to clarify the relationship between environmental influences and the maturation and differentiation of the progenitor cells on the one hand and its contribution to the occurrence of allergies on the other hand. Specifically, we wanted to know whether the occurrence of allergy-relevant progenitor cells in the blood of infants can be changed by environmental influences".