Special device shows lung cells killed by Prague’s air traffic pollution

Inside the test boxes there are real human lung cells

Scientists in Prague have been measuring the amount of dust that enters people’s lungs on a busy road in the city centre. To do that, they used a special mobile cell incubator with actual human lung cells. The results confirmed that traffic pollution poses a serious threat to human health.

Pavel Rössner | Photo: Institute of Experimental Medicine of the CAS

Exposure to air pollutants is associated with all kinds of health problems, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or lung cancer. It also affects other organs, including the central nervous system, resulting for instance in an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

To see what happens to human lungs when exposed to traffic pollution, Scientists from the Institute of Experimental Medicine of the Czech Academy of Sciences carried out measurements on a busy road in Prague’s district of Holešovice, where more than 90,000 cars pass each day.

They discovered that the amount of dust that enters the lungs is so huge that the measuring filters are not even able to fully absorb it, says one of the institute’s members, Pavel Rössner:

“The cells basically didn’t survive. They were damaged to such an extent that some of the analyses will be very difficult to perform because the pollution was so enormous that the cells couldn’t cope with it.”

A set of meters,  tubing and humidification devices in a mobile toxic incubator | Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

To carry out the measurements, a team of experts from the Technical University of Liberec and the Czech Technical University in Prague constructed a special device containing human lung cells, which resembles a small refrigerator. Pavel Rössner again:

“Although the incubator is not quite light enough for one person to carry, it is still of such a size and weight that it is easily transportable by car to different parts of the country, wherever we can think of.”

What is crucial to the whole research is that the test boxes inside the incubator contain actual human lung cells, explains Mr. Rössner:

“It's a cell culture that was commercially acquired. It is reconstituted human lung tissue, from people of different ages, gender, smokers and non-smokers, healthy and diseased. This way we can model the conditions according to the population we want to monitor.”

The mobile toxic incubator looks like a forty-centimeter cube and resembles a refrigerator | Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

The measurements carried out in Prague are part of a larger project, called AMBIEX, which aims to investigate the biological response of different individuals exposed to various levels of pollution.

Apart from Prague, the project will also include other locations, such as the north-Moravian city of Ostrava, associated with industrial pollution, but also a relatively untouched spot in the Moravian-Bohemian Highlands. The results of the project should be available in the spring of next year.