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Scientists raise concerns about factor facilitating spread of cancer cells: 'Significantly amplified cell migration'

"These types of studies are critical early warning signs for us to act."

"These types of studies are critical early warning signs for us to act."

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Researchers from Austria and Germany recently discovered that plastic particles could remain in the human body longer than originally believed and facilitate the spread of cancerous cells. 

What happened?

The scientists, who published their article in the journal Chemosphere, found that micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs) were transferred from one cell to another during cell division.

They marked the plastic particles of 0.25, 1, and 10 micrometers in diameter with fluorescent molecules and introduced them to colorectal cancer cells in a lab dish to examine the transmission.

According to study co-author Verena Pichler, the team chose that type of cancer because of its rising incidence rate and studied polystyrene since it is frequently used in plastic products. 

The largest MNPs could not penetrate the cells, while the smaller particles broke through. Once inside, the MNPs were distributed among the newly formed cells following mitosis, making the exposed cells more mobile than the ones that were impregnable. 

The researchers also noted that the MNPs accumulated near lysosomes, which serve as a cell's garbage disposal and can neutralize foreign particles such as bacteria. However, the structures failed to break down the MNPs.

Why are the results of the study concerning?

Nicholas Chartres, a researcher at UC San Francisco and the University of Sydney who was not involved with the study, told Live Science that the results were "very concerning."

The paper stated that the "0.25 μm particles significantly amplified cell migration," potentially influencing pro-metastatic effects that can lead to cancer. 

Granted, the results came in a controlled experiment, and MNPs might behave differently in real-life situations. Nonetheless, the ubiquity of polystyrene, which is employed in single-use products such as food containers and packing peanuts, is enough reason to raise alarm bells. 

They've already been found in the ocean and human urine samples.

"These types of studies are critical early warning signs for us to act," Chartres said. "... We know microplastics are persistent in the environment due to their stubborn degradation characteristics."

What can I do to protect myself?

"We are surrounded by plastics," Pichler said, adding that we have to reduce our plastic consumption "dramatically" to prevent potentially catastrophic results to humans and the environment. 

Simple changes, such as replacing single-use plastic bags and opting for reusable water bottles can help preserve ecosystems, limit rising global temperatures, and protect us from health consequences that may have once seemed inconceivable.

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