Researchers at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville have recently found a link between a toxic compound found in smoke, benzopyrene, and the manufacturing of cholesterol.
Benzopyrene, which exists in cigarette smoke and forest fire smoke, slows the production of the “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL cholesterol is known to help fight heart disease.
“What we’ve discovered was that this receptor system reduces the expression of a protein that is critical for making HDL, the good cholesterol,” said Michael Haas, a research associate professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville. “It decreases its expression and so the body cannot make as much HDL.”
Benzopyrene is part of a family of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, he said.
Haas, who co-authored the study that was released this July in a journal, said there is still research to be done. He would like to be able to continue with research involving humans, instead of cell culture.
Eventually, the team could quantify what levels of benzopyrene cause an effect on the body. He would also like to see how the chemical is metabolized.
Concerns for nonsmokers — secondhand smoke and forest fires, an environmental event that Gainesville experienced last January and February — are also present.
Florida and Georgia, in particular, have peat and bog fires that prove especially difficult to put out. Haas said the smoke from these fires is especially rich with benzopyrene and other like chemicals.
“People who are exposed to forest fire smoke, secondhand smoke or, for example, people working in bars and facilities where smoking is allowed or households where smoking occurs inside would be exposed to [benzopyrene],” he said, though levels depend on the time and amount of exposure to smoke.
“People who smoke for 20 or 30 years would have a much higher risk than someone who is exposed to forest fires,” Haas said. “Chronic exposure is what’s important in this case.”
In the future, Haas would ideally like to study the effects of the cigarette smoke on mice that produce human HDL cholesterol. He said firefighters, who are exposed almost continuously to forest fire smoke, could also be a test group.
Epidemiological studies, however, can often prove difficult because it is hard to measure how much people were actually exposed to the smoke.
“I am very anxious to follow up on the study,” Haas said. “I hope to obtain funding for follow-up work, especially a translational work to humans.”
Kelsey Meany edited this story online.