Stem cell study reveals cigarette damage to unborn children

Stem cell study reveals cigarette damage to unborn children


Monday, 29 May, 2017

Dr David Hay, Dr Baltasar Lucendo-Villarin, Jose Meseguer-Ripolles and Dr Kate Cameron (all MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh) - in collaboration with the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow - have developed a stem cell technique to assess the effects of maternal cigarette smoking on the developing foetus. Chemicals found in cigarette smoke have been shown to damage foetal liver cells, and in particular to developing liver cells, affecting male and female foetuses differently.

The liver is vital in clearing toxic substances and plays a major role in regulating metabolism. Smoking cigarettes – which contain around 7000 chemicals – can damage foetal organs and may do lasting harm.

The research team – led by the University of Edinburgh – developed a novel way to study the effects of maternal smoking on liver tissue using embryonic stem cells. Scientists used pluripotent stem cells – non-specialised cells that have the distinctive ability to be able to transform into other cell types – to build foetal liver tissue.  Liver cells were exposed to harmful chemicals found in cigarettes, including specific substances known to circulate in foetuses when mothers smoke. 

Results showed that a chemical cocktail – similar to that found in cigarettes – harmed foetal liver health more than individual components. Findings also showed that cigarette chemicals damage the liver differently in male and female foetuses, with male tissue showing liver scarring and female tissue showing more damage to cell metabolism.

Dr David Hay (Centre for Regenerative Medicine) said: “Cigarette smoke is known to have damaging effects on the foetus, yet we lack appropriate tools to study this in a very detailed way. This new approach means that we now have sources of renewable tissue that will enable us to understand the cellular effect of cigarettes on the unborn foetus.”

Professor Paul Fowler (Director of the Institute of Medical Sciences, the University of Aberdeen) said: “This work is part of an ongoing project to understand how cigarette smoking by pregnant mothers has harmful effects on the developing foetus. These findings shed light on fundamental differences in damage between male and female foetuses.”