Air pollution exposure in early life
: Placental molecular changes and clinical microvascular outcomes

Student thesis: Doc typesDoctor of Sciences


According to the ‘DOHaD’ or ‘Barker’ hypothesis, environmental factors to which the fetus is exposed during pregnancy can induce prenatal molecular changes, which in turn can contribute to an increased risk of developing chronical disease conditions later in life. Air pollution is such an environmental factor to which various adverse health conditions have been associated. Already very early during fetal development, black carbon particles can be found at the fetal side of the placenta and molecular signatures show how the effects of air pollution can manifest themselves in placental tissue, with potential profound consequences for human health. It is well known that air pollution exposure has a great effect during the earliest phases of life. However, to date, little has been described about the clinical health consequences of prenatal and postnatal exposure to ambient air pollution in young children.
Within this PhD project we discuss several of the links in the process from environmental exposure to early molecular changes and the eventual clinical outcomes in young children. In the general introduction we discuss the background of this work, with specific attention for a summary of the placental molecular changes that have already been associated with in utero air pollution exposure and the potential effects on health and disease during early childhood that have been described in this context. Subsequently, we develop the different branches of research investigated within this PhD project in 2 main parts. The first part consists of 3 chapters focused on molecular measurements in placental tissue differentially exposed to air pollution during pregnancy. The first chapter discusses the optimization process for the identification of the placental proteome by means of label-free nano tandem mass spectrometry. In the second chapter we have used this optimised technique to investigate the association between prenatal exposure to black carbon air pollution and the proteomic changes in the placenta. In the final chapter of the first part we focussed on an a priori selected target found in placental tissue, the TRPC6 cation channel, and its association with PM2.5 air pollution exposure during pregnancy.
The second part of this PhD project consists of 2 chapters that concentrate on the impact of prenatal air pollution exposure on the retinal microcirculation at the age of 4. In the first chapter we have examined the association between retinal vessel characteristics, more specifically the diameter and tortuosity of the vessels, between 4 and 5 years of age and both prenatal and postnatal exposure to PM2.5 and NO2 air pollution. In the final chapter, we elaborate on the association between retinal microvascular characteristics and the neurological development of the children in our study.
Date of Award26 Mar 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Namur
SponsorsBijzonder Onderzoeksfonds (BOF)
SupervisorFlorence Debacq-Chainiaux (Supervisor), Tim Nawrot (Supervisor), Jan V. Colpaert (President), Thierry Arnould (Jury), Ivan Bautmans (Jury), Wilfried Gyselaers (Jury), Jeroen VANOIRBEEK (Jury) & Karen Vrijens (Jury)


  • Placenta
  • Air pollution
  • Proteomics
  • Retinal microvasculature

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