Exposure to traffic-derived particulate matter (PM), such as diesel exhaust particles (DEP), is a leading environmental cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD), and may contribute to endothelial dysfunction and development of atherosclerosis. It is still debated how DEP and other inhaled PM can contribute to CVD. However, organic chemicals (OC) adhered to the particle surface, are considered central to many of the biological effects. In the present study, we have explored the ability of OC from DEP to reach the endothelium and trigger pro-inflammatory reactions, a central step on the path to atherosclerosis.
Exposure-relevant concentrations of DEP (0.12 μg/cm2) applied on the epithelial side of an alveolar 3D tri-culture, rapidly induced pro-inflammatory and aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR)-regulated genes in the basolateral endothelial cells. These effects seem to be due to soluble lipophilic constituents rather than particle translocation. Extractable organic material of DEP (DEP-EOM) was next fractionated with increasing polarity, chemically characterized, and examined for direct effects on pro-inflammatory and AhR-regulated genes in human microvascular endothelial (HMEC-1) cells and primary human endothelial cells (PHEC) from four healthy donors. Exposure-relevant concentrations of lipophilic DEP-EOM (0.15 μg/cm2) induced low to moderate increases in IL-1α, IL-1β, COX2 and MMP-1 gene expression, and the MMP-1 secretion was increased. By contrast, the more polar EOM had negligible effects, even at higher concentrations. Use of pharmacological inhibitors indicated that AhR and protease-activated receptor-2 (PAR-2) were central in regulation of EOM-induced gene expression. Some effects also seemed to be attributed to redox-responses, at least at the highest exposure concentrations tested. Although the most lipophilic EOM, that contained the majority of PAHs and aliphatics, had the clearest low-concentration effects, there was no straight-forward link between chemical composition and biological effects.
Lipophilic and semi-lipophilic chemicals seemed to detach from DEP, translocate through alveolar epithelial cells and trigger pro-inflammatory reactions in endothelial cells at exposure-relevant concentrations. These effects appeared to be triggered by AhR agonists, and involve PAR-2 signaling.