Use of molecular biomarkers to assess exposure to harmful agents at work

Dr. Efthymios Thanasias, Occupational Physician

Maintenance workers often have contact with vapour or gases, particles (dust, smoke), fibres (asbestos, glass fibre), heavy metals and mists. This triggers a mechanism that may result in the development of occupational diseases.

The main goal for the protection of employee health & safety is Early Detection by health monitoring, which in medicine is achieved by using biomarkers i.e. molecular tools that can be used to identify changes or effects that occur in the body as a result of exposure to any given toxicant. One of the biomarkers used are micronuclei i.e. nuclear material distinct from the main nucleus and within the cytoplasm, which may serve as an indication of tissue damage in workers exposed to carcinogens.

Based on the above a new experimental research method was developed in Greece which can predict trends for lung cancer development among workers exposed to carcinogenic substances. This technique is called micronucleus biomarker comet assay.

 The technique is based on the fact that when carcinogenic cells are subject to a separation technique called “electrophoresis” and then are painted with fluorescent material called “fluorescent staining”, then the damaged cells can be separated and, when observed under the microscope, look like a comet; the longer the tail, the more damaged the cell is. This method is therefore called “Comet Assay Overview”.

This method is being tested for maintenance workers in a metal industry in Greece aiming to investigate possible alterations in the genetic material of maintenance workers in a mining and processing of nickel.

Since the study is under way, results are pending but the objective is to determine whether the exposure limits (TWA, OEL, STEL and CL) must be revised and also assist the Occupational Physician prescribe medical examinations to early-detect carcinogenicity trends among high-risk employees.

The EFNMS’s Health, Safety & Environmental Committee (EHSEC) has addressed an invitation to all National Maintenance Society Members to contribute by providing specimens for laboratory testing in order to contribute to this effort.

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