An international team of researchers has discovered that formaldehyde, a widespread pollutant and common metabolite in our bodies, interferes with the epigenetic programming of the cell. This finding expands knowledge of formaldehyde, previously thought only as a DNA mutagen, and helps establish a further link to cancer. Dr. Lucas Pontel, team leader at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute, and Dr. Manel Esteller, team leader and director of the institute, sign the paper as co-authors, which has been published in Science.
Epigenetics, the chemical mechanisms that control the activity of genes, allows our cells, tissues and organs to adapt to the changing conditions of the environment around us. This advantage can become a disadvantage, however, as this epigenetic regulation can be more easily altered by toxins than the more stable genetic sequence of DNA.
An article recently published in Science with the collaboration of the teams of Dr. Manel Esteller, Director of the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute (IJC-CERCA), ICREA Research Professor and Chair of Genetics at the University of Barcelona, and Dr. Lucas Pontel, Ramon y Cajal Fellow also of the Josep Carreras Institute, demonstrates that the substance called formaldehyde, commonly present in various household and cosmetic products, in polluted air and widely used in construction, is a powerful modifier of normal epigenetic patterns.
The publication is headed by Dr. Christopher J. Chang, from the University of California, Berkeley in the United States, whose research group is a pioneer in the study of the effects of various chemicals on cellular metabolism. The research focused on investigating the effects of high concentrations of formaldehyde in the body, a substance that has already been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer (nasopharyngeal tumors and leukemia), liver degeneration due to fatty liver (steatosis) and asthma. Dr. Esteller points out that this is relevant because “formaldehyde enters our body mainly through our breathing and, because it dissolves well in an aqueous medium, it ends up reaching all the cells in our body.”
“This substance is highly concentrated in various products used in construction, furniture making, textiles and some hair products,” comments Dr. Esteller. Going a step further, Dr. Pontel emphasizes this vision by pointing out that “formaldehyde is not only a major environmental hazard, often found in polluted fumes, but it can also be created in our bodies through the metabolism of common dietary substances such as the sweetener aspartame. In addition, our cells constantly produce formaldehyde, a known mutagen that can lead to cancer.”
As an overview of the research, Dr. Esteller points out that “we discovered that formaldehyde is an inhibitor of the MAT1A protein, which is the main producer of S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAM) and this last molecule is the universal donor of the chemical of a “methyl” group that regulates epigenetic activity Specifically, we found that exposure to formaldehyde caused a decrease in SAM content and caused a loss of methylation of histones, proteins that package our DNA and control the function of thousands of genes. “
Taken together, this work reveals an even more troubling aspect of formaldehyde toxicity. Dr. Pontel sums it up as “we discovered that formaldehyde has the ability to modify the epigenetic landscape of our cells, which may contribute to the well-documented carcinogenic properties of formaldehyde.”
The epigenetic changes caused by the toxic agent could directly contribute to the origin of the mentioned diseases, in addition to its known mutagenic properties. Regarding this, Dr. Esteller informs that “international health authorities already limit the use of formaldehyde as much as possible, but there are still areas of work where high levels of it are used, such as in the manufacture of resins, the production of plastics, industrial foundries or of the cosmetics industry. In addition, it also comes from the burning of gasoline in cars and from cigarette smoke, so environmental and health policies aimed at reducing our exposure to the designated substance should be promoted.”