A collaboration between project investigators in the Superfund Research Program has helped to better understand how exposure to formaldehyde can cause significant health effects. Drs. Rebecca Fry and James Swenberg partnered to explore possible epigenetic changes resulting from formaldehyde exposure, particularly the expression of microRNAs (miRNAs) in nasal tissue, and how those changes may contribute to formaldehyde-induced health effects. This study is the first to investigate potential changes in miRNA expression caused by exposure to inhaled formaldehyde in vivo.
Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It is pervasive in both indoor and outdoor environments and is also associated with increased risk of childhood asthma and acute respiratory tract illness.
MicroRNAs play a pivotal role in regulating human gene expression. The study demonstrated that exposure to formaldehyde disrupts microRNA profiles in the nasal tissue of non-human primates, including most notably, changes in signaling related to cell death. This is an especially important finding as an imbalance between the rate of cell death and survival can have a strong influence on cellular disease.
Future studies will compare the changes observed in nasal tissue to changes in tissues from sites outside of the respiratory tract to continue to improve our understanding of how inhalation of formaldehyde can cause disease.