Environmental pollutants can be considered vicious invisible enemies when it comes to pregnancy. Unseen, these pollutants wreak havoc on the delicate health of the fetus. They include semi-volatile organic compounds, human-made endocrine-disrupting chemicals and hormones, antibacterial substances and plastic microparticles amongst others. In this blog we examine the dangers of some of these environmental pollutants and where the LifeSaver project comes in.
Types of Environment Pollutants
An environmental pollutant that poses severe risks to pregnant women is the chemicals found in plastics. Research has found that PFAS, industrial chemicals used in numerous products like waterproof jackets and fast-food containers, could have a long-term impact on pregnant women. Exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterised by high blood pressure and damage to other organ systems, generally occurring in the kidneys and liver. Phthalates is another chemical commonly added to plastic, and experts consider them to be reproductive toxicants and endocrine disruptors. They are primarily found in plastics and personal care items.
Harmful pathogens are another significant environmental pollutant for pregnant women. This is particularly the case in areas that do not clean their water via filtration systems. Although pregnant women are not necessarily more susceptible to infections than nonpregnant women, their immunologic alterations during pregnancy can impair pathogen clearance. This means the severity of the disease can increase and get much worse. Some of the most dangerous pathogens found in rivers include cryptosporidium, legionella pneumophila, giardia lamblia, salmonella, Escherichia coli, and campylobacter jejuni.
A common environmental pollutant found in food and drinking water is microplastics. The direct human health impact of consuming microplastics is unknown. What is clear is they are foreign particles and will not positively benefit the body. Just as microplastics have been found in food, they have also been discovered in both bottled and tap water in 14 different countries. The plastic particles, when swallowed, can migrate through to the intestinal wall and travel to lymph nodes and other organs in the body.
Research has suggested that microplastics may be entering the water via air in addition to wastewater treatment facilities. Some other studies have suggested that consuming plastic can cause behavioural disorders and brain damage in fish. This poses the question of whether it could cause the same issues for humans. In addition, Italian researchers have reported microplastics being found in human placentas. The researchers analysed the placentas of six different women using Raman microspectroscopy, and they discovered around 12 fragments of microplastics. In four of the women, these microplastics were 5 to 10 micrometres in size.
Since environmental pollutants can lead to disease requiring prescription drugs, this brings us to the safety aspect of drugs prescribed to pregnant women.
The LifeSaver Project
Currently, the only way to ensure a biomedical product is safe is to test it on humans by facilitating clinical trials. These are usually carried out in three phases before the product officially reaches the market. Unfortunately, as a result of the potentially harmful effects and significant unknowns of biomedical products testing on the developing foetus, just 1% of all clinical trials in the US consider pregnant women, the other 98% actively exclude them.
Clinical trials are also very expensive, and the timing is too prohibitive. The underlying procedures and protocols have grown increasingly challenging. The scientific evidence on medication and living environment chemical effects on pregnant women can’t improve as a result of the lack of data available on the concentration, dose, duration, medical efficacy, and systemic safety.
Given this, it is important to press for powerful investigative techniques which can uncover the aetiology of pregnancy complications by medicinal substances and chemical contaminants. The LifeSaver Project proposes a great solution here thanks to its bio-digital twin (BDT) approach, which comprises a machine-learning hybrid system. This system is a virtual clone device and a physical in vitro test system. It’s guided by the human-computer interaction and the physical device to learn from the data, using various predictions and scenarios without the need for real experiments. As you can tell, this already takes away some of the big disadvantages of clinical trials. These predictions are then validated with the in vitro test system to improve the outcomes.