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1.  Susceptibility to particle health effects, miRNA and exosomes: rationale and study protocol of the SPHERE study 
BMC Public Health  2014;14(1):1137.
Despite epidemiological findings showing increased air pollution related cardiovascular diseases (CVD), the knowledge of the involved molecular mechanisms remains moderate or weak. Particulate matter (PM) produces a local strong inflammatory reaction in the pulmonary environment but there is no final evidence that PM physically enters and deposits in blood vessels. Extracellular vesicles (EVs) and their miRNA cargo might be the ideal candidate to mediate the effects of PM, since they could be potentially produced by the respiratory system, reach the systemic circulation and lead to the development of cardiovascular effects.
The SPHERE (“Susceptibility to Particle Health Effects, miRNAs and Exosomes”) project was granted by ERC-2011-StG 282413, to examine possible molecular mechanisms underlying the effects of PM exposure in relation to health outcomes.
The study population will include 2000 overweight (25 < BMI < 30 kg/cm2) or obese (BMI ≥ 30 kg/cm2) subjects presenting at the Center for Obesity and Work (Fondazione IRCCS Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, Milan, Italy).
Each subject donates blood, urine and hair samples. Extensive epidemiological and clinical data are collected. Exposure to PM is assigned to each subject using both daily PM10 concentration series from air quality monitors and pollutant levels estimated by the FARM (Flexible air Quality Regional Model) modelling system and elaborated by the Regional Environmental Protection Agency.
The recruitment period started in September 2010 and will continue until 2015. At December 31, 2013 we recruited 1250 subjects, of whom 87% lived in the province of Milan.
Primary study outcomes include cardiometabolic and respiratory health effects. The main molecular mechanism we are investigating focuses on EV-associated microRNAs.
SPHERE is the first large study aimed to explore EVs as a novel potential mechanism of how air pollution exposure acts in a highly susceptible population. The rigorous study design, the availability of banked biological samples and the potential to integrate epidemiological, clinical and molecular data will also furnish a powerful base for investigating different complementary molecular mechanisms. Our findings, if confirmed, could lead to the identification of potentially reversible alterations that might be considered as possible targets for new diagnostic and therapeutic interventions.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-1137) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4242553  PMID: 25371091
Particulate matter; Obesity; Cardiovascular effects; Extracellular vesicles; Exosomes; Microvesicles; miRNAs
2.  Nutrients Intake Is Associated with DNA Methylation of Candidate Inflammatory Genes in a Population of Obese Subjects 
Nutrients  2014;6(10):4625-4639.
The aim of the present study was to evaluate the potential association between dietary nutrients and alterations in DNA methylation in a set of five candidate genes, including CD14, Et-1, iNOS, HERV-w and TNFα, in a population of overweight/obese subjects. We evaluated possible associations between gene methylation and clinical blood parameters, including total cholesterol (TC), low- and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C and HDL-C), triglyceride and homocysteine levels. We employed validated methods to assess anthropometric, clinical and dietary data, as well as pyrosequencing to evaluate DNA methylation of the five candidate genes in 165 overweight/obese subjects. There was no association between body mass index and DNA methylation of the five candidate genes in this group of subjects. Positive associations were observed between TNFα methylation and blood levels of LDL-C (β = 0.447, p = 0.002), TC/HDL-C (β = 0.467, p = 0.001) and LDL-C/HDL-C (β = 0.445, p = 0.002), as well as between HERV-w methylation and dietary intakes of β-carotene (β = 0.088, p = 0.051) and carotenoids (β = 0.083, p = 0.029). TNFα methylation showed negative associations with dietary intakes of cholesterol (β = −0.278, p = 0.048), folic acid (β = −0.339, p = 0.012), β-carotene (β = −0.332, p = 0.045), carotenoids (β = −0.331, p = 0.015) and retinol (β = −0.360, p = 0.008). These results suggest a complex relationship among nutrient intake, oxidative stress and DNA methylation.
PMCID: PMC4210937  PMID: 25340371
DNA methylation; CD14; Et-1; iNOS; HERV-w; TNFα; nutrients
3.  DNA Hypomethylation, Ambient Particulate Matter, and Increased Blood Pressure: Findings From Controlled Human Exposure Experiments 
Short‐term exposures to fine (<2.5 μm aerodynamic diameter) ambient particulate‐matter (PM) have been related with increased blood pressure (BP) in controlled‐human exposure and community‐based studies. However, whether coarse (2.5 to 10 μm) PM exposure increases BP is uncertain. Recent observational studies have linked PM exposures with blood DNA hypomethylation, an epigenetic alteration that activates inflammatory and vascular responses. No experimental evidence is available to confirm those observational data and demonstrate the relations between PM, hypomethylation, and BP.
Methods and Results
We conducted a cross‐over trial of controlled‐human exposure to concentrated ambient particles (CAPs). Fifteen healthy adult participants were exposed for 130 minutes to fine CAPs, coarse CAPs, or HEPA‐filtered medical air (control) in randomized order with ≥2‐week washout. Repetitive‐element (Alu, long interspersed nuclear element‐1 [LINE‐1]) and candidate‐gene (TLR4, IL‐12, IL‐6, iNOS) blood methylation, systolic and diastolic BP were measured pre‐ and postexposure. After adjustment for multiple comparisons, fine CAPs exposure lowered Alu methylation (β‐standardized=−0.74, adjusted‐P=0.03); coarse CAPs exposure lowered TLR4 methylation (β‐standardized=−0.27, adjusted‐P=0.04). Both fine and coarse CAPs determined significantly increased systolic BP (β=2.53 mm Hg, P=0.001; β=1.56 mm Hg, P=0.03, respectively) and nonsignificantly increased diastolic BP (β=0.98 mm Hg, P=0.12; β=0.82 mm Hg, P=0.11, respectively). Decreased Alu and TLR4 methylation was associated with higher postexposure DBP (β‐standardized=0.41, P=0.04; and β‐standardized=0.84, P=0.02; respectively). Decreased TLR4 methylation was associated with higher postexposure SBP (β‐standardized=1.45, P=0.01).
Our findings provide novel evidence of effects of coarse PM on BP and confirm effects of fine PM. Our results provide the first experimental evidence of PM‐induced DNA hypomethylation and its correlation to BP.
PMCID: PMC3698788  PMID: 23782920
air pollution; blood pressure; DNA methylation; epigenetics; mediation
4.  Urinary Benzene Biomarkers and DNA Methylation in Bulgarian Petrochemical Workers: Study Findings and Comparison of Linear and Beta Regression Models 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(12):e50471.
Chronic occupational exposure to benzene is associated with an increased risk of hematological malignancies such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML), but the underlying mechanisms are still unclear. The main objective of this study was to investigate the association between benzene exposure and DNA methylation, both in repeated elements and candidate genes, in a population of 158 Bulgarian petrochemical workers and 50 unexposed office workers. Exposure assessment included personal monitoring of airborne benzene at work and urinary biomarkers of benzene metabolism (S-phenylmercapturic acid [SPMA] and trans,trans-muconic acid [t,t-MA]) at the end of the work-shift. The median levels of airborne benzene, SPMA and t,t-MA in workers were 0.46 ppm, 15.5 µg/L and 711 µg/L respectively, and exposure levels were significantly lower in the controls. Repeated-element DNA methylation was measured in Alu and LINE-1, and gene-specific methylation in MAGE and p15. DNA methylation levels were not significantly different between exposed workers and controls (P>0.05). Both ordinary least squares (OLS) and beta-regression models were used to estimate benzene-methylation associations. Beta-regression showed better model specification, as reflected in improved coefficient of determination (pseudo R2) and Akaike’s information criterion (AIC). In beta-regression, we found statistically significant reductions in LINE-1 (−0.15%, P<0.01) and p15 (−0.096%, P<0.01) mean methylation levels with each interquartile range (IQR) increase in SPMA. This study showed statistically significant but weak associations of LINE-1 and p15 hypomethylation with SPMA in Bulgarian petrochemical workers. We showed that beta-regression is more appropriate than OLS regression for fitting methylation data.
PMCID: PMC3515615  PMID: 23227177
5.  Increased Mitochondrial DNA Copy Number in Occupations Associated with Low-Dose Benzene Exposure 
Environmental Health Perspectives  2011;120(2):210-215.
Background: Benzene is an established leukemogen at high exposure levels. Although low-level benzene exposure is widespread and may induce oxidative damage, no mechanistic biomarkers are available to detect biological dysfunction at low doses.
Objectives: Our goals were to determine in a large multicenter cross-sectional study whether low-level benzene is associated with increased blood mitochondrial DNA copy number (mtDNAcn, a biological oxidative response to mitochondrial DNA damage and dysfunction) and to explore potential links between mtDNAcn and leukemia-related epigenetic markers.
Methods: We measured blood relative mtDNAcn by real-time polymerase chain reaction in 341 individuals selected from various occupational groups with low-level benzene exposures (> 100 times lower than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration/European Union standards) and 178 referents from three Italian cities (Genoa, Milan, Cagliari).
Results: In each city, benzene-exposed participants showed higher mtDNAcn than referents: mtDNAcn was 0.90 relative units in Genoa bus drivers and 0.75 in referents (p = 0.019); 0.90 in Milan gas station attendants, 1.10 in police officers, and 0.75 in referents (p-trend = 0.008); 1.63 in Cagliari petrochemical plant workers, 1.25 in referents close to the plant, and 0.90 in referents farther from the plant (p-trend = 0.046). Using covariate-adjusted regression models, we estimated that an interquartile range increase in personal airborne benzene was associated with percent increases in mtDNAcn equal to 10.5% in Genoa (p = 0.014), 8.2% (p = 0.008) in Milan, 7.5% in Cagliari (p = 0.22), and 10.3% in all cities combined (p < 0.001). Using methylation data available for the Milan participants, we found that mtDNAcn was associated with LINE-1 hypomethylation (–2.41%; p = 0.007) and p15 hypermethylation (+15.95%, p = 0.008).
Conclusions: Blood MtDNAcn was increased in persons exposed to low benzene levels, potentially reflecting mitochondrial DNA damage and dysfunction.
PMCID: PMC3279451  PMID: 22005026
benzene; biomarkers; low exposures; methylation; mitochondrial DNA copy number
6.  Effects of Short-Term Exposure to Inhalable Particulate Matter on Telomere Length, Telomerase Expression, and Telomerase Methylation in Steel Workers 
Environmental Health Perspectives  2010;119(5):622-627.
Shortened leukocyte telomere length (LTL) is a marker of cardiovascular risk that has been recently associated with long-term exposure to ambient particulate matter (PM). However, LTL is increased during acute inflammation and allows for rapid proliferation of inflammatory cells. Whether short-term exposure to proinflammatory exposures such as PM increases LTL has never been evaluated.
We investigated the effects of acute exposure to metal-rich PM on blood LTL, as well as molecular mechanisms contributing to LTL regulation in a group of steel workers with high PM exposure.
We measured LTL, as well as mRNA expression and promoter DNA methylation of the telomerase catalytic enzyme gene [human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT)] in blood samples obtained from 63 steel workers on the first day of a workweek (baseline) and after 3 days of work (postexposure).
LTL was significantly increased in postexposure (mean ± SD, 1.43 ± 0.51) compared with baseline samples (1.23 ± 0.28, p-value < 0.001). Postexposure LTL was positively associated with PM10 (β = 0.30, p-value = 0.002 for 90th vs. 10th percentile exposure) and PM1 (β = 0.29, p-value = 0.042) exposure levels in regression models adjusting for multiple covariates. hTERT expression was lower in postexposure samples (1.31 ± 0.75) than at baseline (1.68 ± 0.86, p-value < 0.001), but the decrease in hTERT expression did not show a dose–response relationship with PM. We found no exposure-related differences in the methylation of any of the CpG sites investigated in the hTERT promoter.
Short-term exposure to PM caused a rapid increase in blood LTL. The LTL increase did not appear to be mediated by PM-related changes in hTERT expression and methylation.
PMCID: PMC3094411  PMID: 21169126
epigenetics; particulate matter; telomerase; telomere length
7.  Association between leukocyte telomere shortening and exposure to traffic pollution: a cross-sectional study on traffic officers and indoor office workers 
Environmental Health  2009;8:41.
Telomere shortening in blood leukocytes has been associated with increased morbidity and death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, but determinants of shortened telomeres, a molecular feature of biological aging, are still largely unidentified. Traffic pollution has been linked with both cardiovascular and cancer risks, particularly in older subjects. Whether exposure to traffic pollution is associated with telomere shortening has never been evaluated.
We measured leukocyte telomere length (LTL) by real-time PCR in blood DNA from 77 traffic officers exposed to high levels of traffic pollutants and 57 office workers (referents). Airborne benzene and toluene, as tracers for traffic exposure, were measured using personal passive samplers and gas-chromatography/flame-ionization detector analysis. We used covariate-adjusted multivariable models to test the effects of the exposure on LTL and obtain adjusted LTL means and 95% Confidence Intervals (CIs).
Adjusted mean LTL was 1.10 (95%CI 1.04-1.16) in traffic officers and 1.27 in referents (95%CI 1.20-1.35) [p < 0.001]. LTL decreased in association with age in both traffic officers (p = 0.01) and referents (p = 0.001), but traffic officers had shorter LTL within each age category. Among traffic officers, adjusted mean relative LTL was shorter in individuals working in high (n = 45, LTL = 1.02, 95%CI 0.96-1.09) compared to low traffic intensity (n = 32, LTL = 1.22, 95%CI 1.13-1.31) [p < 0.001]. In the entire study population, LTL decreased with increasing levels of personal exposure to benzene (p = 0.004) and toluene (p = 0.008).
Our results indicate that leukocyte telomere length is shortened in subjects exposed to traffic pollution, suggesting evidence of early biological aging and disease risk.
PMCID: PMC2761867  PMID: 19772576
8.  Environment And Genetics in Lung cancer Etiology (EAGLE) study: An integrative population-based case-control study of lung cancer 
BMC Public Health  2008;8:203.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality worldwide. Tobacco smoking is its primary cause, and yet the precise molecular alterations induced by smoking in lung tissue that lead to lung cancer and impact survival have remained obscure. A new framework of research is needed to address the challenges offered by this complex disease.
We designed a large population-based case-control study that combines a traditional molecular epidemiology design with a more integrative approach to investigate the dynamic process that begins with smoking initiation, proceeds through dependency/smoking persistence, continues with lung cancer development and ends with progression to disseminated disease or response to therapy and survival. The study allows the integration of data from multiple sources in the same subjects (risk factors, germline variation, genomic alterations in tumors, and clinical endpoints) to tackle the disease etiology from different angles. Before beginning the study, we conducted a phone survey and pilot investigations to identify the best approach to ensure an acceptable participation in the study from cases and controls. Between 2002 and 2005, we enrolled 2101 incident primary lung cancer cases and 2120 population controls, with 86.6% and 72.4% participation rate, respectively, from a catchment area including 216 municipalities in the Lombardy region of Italy. Lung cancer cases were enrolled in 13 hospitals and population controls were randomly sampled from the area to match the cases by age, gender and residence. Detailed epidemiological information and biospecimens were collected from each participant, and clinical data and tissue specimens from the cases. Collection of follow-up data on treatment and survival is ongoing.
EAGLE is a new population-based case-control study that explores the full spectrum of lung cancer etiology, from smoking addiction to lung cancer outcome, through examination of epidemiological, molecular, and clinical data. We have provided a detailed description of the study design, field activities, management, and opportunities for research following this integrative approach, which allows a sharper and more comprehensive vision of the complex nature of this disease. The study is poised to accelerate the emergence of new preventive and therapeutic strategies with potentially enormous impact on public health.
PMCID: PMC2464602  PMID: 18538025

Results 1-8 (8)