Scientists discover tiny plastics in developing chicken hearts

A picture of a chicken heart with fluorescent nanoplastics. Credits: Wang et al (2024)

What it means for our health?

Tiny plastic particles, known as nanoplastics, can accumulate in developing hearts, according to a study by biologist Meiru Wang from Leiden University.

Her research on chicken embryos reveals new dangers posed by these microscopic plastics to our health.

Plastics like disposable cups, bags, and packaging materials break down over time, shedding tiny particles into the environment.

These particles can be just a few nanometers in size. Nanoplastics are now found everywhere: in the sea, soil, food chain, and even in our blood. “Nanoplastics have even been found in human placentas,” says Wang.

This discovery led Wang to wonder what happens when nanoplastics enter the blood of an embryo.

In a previous study, her team found that high concentrations of nanoplastics caused malformations in the hearts, eyes, and nervous systems of chicken embryos.

To understand the full impact of nanoplastics, Wang wanted to learn how these particles spread from the blood to other parts of the body.

This research is also important for nanomedicine, where scientists use nanoparticles to deliver drugs. Wang and her colleagues injected polystyrene nanoparticles directly into the bloodstream of chicken embryos. Chicken embryos are often used in research because they develop outside the mother’s body, making it easier to study their growth.

Since nanoparticles are too small to see with regular microscopes, Wang’s team tagged them with fluorescence or europium, a rare metal not found in the human body. They discovered that nanoplastics can pass through blood vessel walls and build up in the heart, liver, and kidneys. Some nanoplastics were even excreted by the kidneys.

Interestingly, the researchers also found nanoplastics in the heart cushions, a type of heart tissue without blood vessels. Wang explains that nanoplastics might enter the heart through small openings called fenestrations, which play a role in heart development and typically close as the heart matures.

“Now we know how nanoplastics spread, we can start investigating their health risks,” says Wang. The outlook isn’t promising. Research already links nanoparticles to a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. Nanoparticles could be especially dangerous during development.

Wang emphasizes the importance of these findings for nanomedicine. “Our results show that we shouldn’t give nanomedicines to pregnant women indiscriminately. There is a risk that nanoparticles could reach and harm the developing organs of their babies.”

This study highlights the need for more research on the effects of nanoplastics and the careful use of nanoparticles in medicine, especially for pregnant women.