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Does air pollution pose a cancer risk for unborn children?

We don’t know enough about the link between road traffic pollution and cancer in children. Prof John Wright is studying whether air pollution can transfer from pregnant women to their unborn child through the placenta. This work could lead to new measures to protect children’s health and prevent cancer.

Project Details

  • Project Title

    Does maternal ambient air exposure to traffic-related particulate matter induce carcinogenic responses in the foetus.

  • Lead Researcher

    Professor John Wright

  • Research Centre

    Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

  • City & Institution Postcode

    Bradford, BD9 6R

  • Start Date

    1 January 2020

  • Duration

    36 months

  • Grant Amount

    £350,000

John Wright man with white beard and arms folded

Overview

We don’t know enough about what causes cancer in children to be able to prevent it. One factor that has been studied in the past is air pollution from road traffic. We know that road pollution can increase risk of cancer in adults. However, the link between road pollution and cancer in children is less clear. Researchers suspect that things children are exposed to before they are born may affect their chances of developing cancer. For that reason, scientists are interested in studying whether exposure to road pollution during pregnancy increases the risk of cancer in the unborn child.

Unborn babies get everything they need to grow in their mother’s womb through the placenta. In this project, Prof John Wright will find out whether air pollution can cross the placenta from mother to baby. If it does, it is possible that this pollution could causes changes in the body which might put the child at risk of developing cancer later in life.

Prof Wright and his team will use samples of placenta donated by women after birth. They will use these samples in the lab to study if pollution in the mother’s blood can cross the placenta into the baby’s blood.

The team will also study blood samples taken from the umbilical cord – the blood vessels connecting the placenta to the unborn baby. Around 100 umbilical cord blood samples will be used, donated as part of a large study of mothers and their children in Bradford. In these blood samples, the team will look for the different chemicals and tiny particles which make up air pollution from road traffic. They will also look for any biological changes which suggest an increased risk of cancer later in life.

Potential impact

Prof Wright aims to show whether road pollution can be transferred to unborn children through the placenta. His team will also show whether this causes any changes in the body which are linked to cancer. These findings could help future research to determine whether or not road traffic air pollution increases risk of childhood cancer. Ultimately, if the link is confirmed, it could lead to new stricter recommendations to control air pollution. This could help to reduce the number of children diagnosed with cancer, as well as preventing other health problems.

About the research team

Prof John Wright is a clinician and epidemiologist specialising in hospital medicine and public health in the UK and leads the Bradford Institute for Health Research.
Prof Wright established and leads the Born in Bradford (BiB) study which follows the lives of over 13,000 families as their children grow. The BiB study team will collect blood samples from mothers living at sites in Bradford and Leeds with high and low traffic related air pollution during their pregnancy.
In this project Prof Wright will collaborate with The Maternal Fetal Health Research Group at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. This is the largest clinical and laboratory obstetric research unit in Europe. The research group will collect placentas at birth and perform laboratory experiments to study if pollutant material can transport across the placenta.

This project will also collaborate with Prof Jos Kleinjans and Dr Kèvin Knoops at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

The team at Maastricht University will undertake cutting edge microscopy techniques to detect pollutant material in placentas and umbilical blood cord samples. They will also use cutting edge technology to look at any DNA damage from the samples.