Scientists in Germany have detected microplastic particles in human liver samples for the first time.
Researchers at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf took liver, kidney and spleen samples from six cirrhosis patients and five individuals who do not suffer from the disease.
Microplastic concentrations in all six cirrhotic liver tissues tested positive, according to Dr Thomas Horvatits.
The gastroenterology expert pointed out: “This is the first time microplastic fragments have been discovered in human liver tissue.”
All samples from patients without underlying liver disease tested negative for microplastic particles, Dr Horvatits added.
Cirrhosis can result in complications such as yellowing, itchy skin, swollen legs and vomiting blood.
The pollution of the ecosystem with microplastics from different sources, such as cosmetics and food packaging, is a worsening issue.
Microplastic fragments are found in air, water, and humans’ nutrition, especially seafood.
However, the degree of absorption and retention is still unclear.
Microplastics have been observed in mouse tissue, and recently in human blood, stools and placentae.
Dr Horvatits – an assistant medical director at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf – headed the study.
He explained: “Our research shows increased microplastic particle accumulations in the liver of all six cirrhosis sufferers who participated in the study.
“In fact, we detected six different microplastic polymers in the examined liver sample. Their sizes ranged between four and 30 micrometres.”
The reason for the residue of microplastics in cirrhotic liver tissue is yet to be determined, according to the study leader.
Dr Horvatits explained: “We see a potential connection with the fact that elevated portal vein pressure worsens the intestinal permeability of people suffering from cirrhosis.
“This condition could lead to an increased transfer of microplastic fragments from the bowel to the liver.
“We cannot say for sure yet whether, and in which way, microplastic residue affects the course of the cirrhosis.
“Further research will be needed to find out more on that.”
A total of 17 samples – 11 liver, three kidney and three spleen samples – were analysed, according to Dr Horvatits.
Dr Elke Kerstin Fischer – who heads the Microplastic Research Group at Hamburg University – said: “The extremely small particle size and the low number of samples were the most challenging aspects of the study.
“We managed to develop a reliable method for the detection of microplastics sized between four and 30 micrometres in human tissue.”
The study, titled ‘Microplastics detected in cirrhotic liver tissue’, was authored by Thomas Horvatits, Matthias Tamminga, Beibei Liu, Marcial Sebode, Antonella Carambia, Lutz Fischer, Klaus Pueschel, Samuel Huber, and Elke Kerstin Fischer. It was published in the peer-reviewed acadmic journal eBioMedicine on 11th July.
Cirrhosis is most commonly caused by alcoholic liver disease, chronic hepatitis B, chronic hepatitis C and the progressive form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver caused by long-term liver damage. The scar tissue prevents the liver working properly.
Early-stage symptoms include feeling very tired and weak as well as a loss of appetite, weight and muscle mass.
Diagnosis is based on blood tests, medical imaging, and liver biopsy.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) warns: “There’s no cure for cirrhosis at the moment. However, there are ways to manage the symptoms and any complications and slow its progression.”
Britain’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities reported that, during 2020, the rate of premature deaths due to all kinds of liver disease significantly increased compared to the previous year.
There were 10,127 premature deaths due to liver disease in England, compared with 9,218 deaths in 2019, according to the office.
The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities also pointed out that rates of premature liver disease deaths were generally much higher in males than females.
Cirrhosis affected about 2.8 million people and resulted in 1.3 million deaths worldwide in 2015, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study for that year.
Scientists at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf cooperated with experts at Hamburg University for their study on microplastics.
The medical centre is the city’s largest hospital. It was founded in 1889.
The University of Hamburg – which was established in 1919 – is the largest institution for research and education in northern Germany.