Skip to content

Air Pollution & Asthma Through the Generations

Make an Appointment

Mothers exposed to air pollution pass asthma susceptibility to their children.

Dr. GorskaWomen who live in areas with bad air pollution are more likely to have children with asthma. Magdalena Gorska, MD, PhD, is investigating how prenatal exposure to air pollution might contribute to the development of asthma in children. She has shown that compounds in diesel exhaust cross the placenta. Once across the placenta, they activate biological mechanisms that can make a child more susceptible to asthma. Dr. Gorska has begun identifying the cells, pathways and molecules involved. That knowledge could reveal molecular or cellular targets for medications to treat and even prevent asthma.

WATCH: Asthma & Air Pollution: What We Know

Crossing the Placenta

The PAH molecules then bind to specific sensor proteins on fetal immune cells known as natural killer cells.Dr. Gorska is discovering the biological mechanisms that link a mother’s exposure to air pollution with asthma in her children. She has found that specific molecules in diesel exhaust, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, cross the placenta. The PAH molecules then bind to specific sensor proteins on fetal immune cells known as natural killer cells.

WATCH: Diesel Exhaust Can Predispose Unborn Babies to Asthma


Natural Killer Cells Promote Asthma

Natural Killer Cells Promote AsthmaThe sensor proteins, known as AhRs, trigger a cascade of biochemical reactions inside the natural killer cells. That cascade causes the cells to release molecules that increase inflammation and airway resistance — hallmarks of asthma. Dr. Gorska’s experiments showed that when natural killer cells were removed, asthma did not develop.


How Long Does It Last?

Dr. Gorska is now seeking to understand the sequence of events that cause exposure to diesel exhaust to lead to eventual susceptibility to asthma. She is looking for other mechanisms that might transfer asthma susceptibility to offspring, including breast milk and epigenetic changes. She is also watching to see if the predisposition to asthma is passed on from offspring to subsequent generations.

For more than 100 years, National Jewish Health has been committed to finding new treatments and cures for diseases. Search our clinical trials.