Skip to main content

Air Pollution and Herpes Virus: How Nanoparticles Promote Chronic Lung Diseases like COPD

Featured Publication, Environmental Health, IAP, LHI,

Helmholtz Munich researchers have discovered, that air pollutants activate previously dormant herpes viruses leading to a immune response. These new findings are now published in ASC Nano.

Especially in big cities, the air we breathe is full of the finest particles. And with every breath, we transport these nanoparticles into the finest ramifications of our lungs. It is now a scientific consensus that this promotes chronic lung diseases in regions with high levels of air pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 7 million people die each year because of poor air quality.

Researchers at the Institute of Lung Health and Immunity (LHI) at Helmholtz Munich have now observed another link that promotes this harmful process: previously dormant herpes viruses are activated by inhaled particulate air pollutants, triggering local immune responses. If this pollutant exposure is repeated, it leads to emphysema-like injuries in the alveoli, caused by the death of individual lung epithelial cells - which in turn is one of the main reasons for incurable chronic lung diseases such as COPD. The latter is mostly triggered by smoking, but non-smokers can also be affected. The interaction of ubiquitous herpes viruses, or their reactivation induced by fine dust exposure, could be an additional explanation for this.

Dr. Lianyong Han and Dr. Verena Häfner from the Dynamics of Pulmonary Inflammation group led by Dr. Tobias Stöger, in cooperation with Prof. Heiko Adler from the Institute for Asthma- and Allergy Prevention (IAP) at Helmholtz Munich and the Walther-Straub-Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology at the LMU, also found a possible way to stop this process: the reactivation of the herpes viruses can be inhibited with medication - as a preventative measure before inhaling soot-like nanoparticles.

LHI group leader Tobias Stöger sees another insight for the future: nanoparticles are created more than ever in the workplace through technical processes in the production of high-tech materials. The susceptibility of the lungs caused by ubiquitous, latent herpes virus infections must therefore be considered in future nano safety studies or risk predictions.

In summary, the LHI researchers discovered that the meeting of soot-like nanoparticles and latent herpes viruses triggers a disease-promoting process in the alveoli. However, therapeutic inhibition of this process could prevent the reactivation of the virus and alleviate COPD-like diseases.


Original publication

Han et al. (2023): Nanoparticle-Exposure-Triggered Virus Reactivation Induces Lung Emphysema in Mice.

About the scientists

Dr. Tobias Stöger, Group Leader for Dynamics of Pulmonary Inflammation at the Institute of Lung Health and Immunity (LHI) at Helmholtz Munich

Prof. Heiko Adler, Group Leader at the Institute for Asthma- and Allergy Prevention (IAP) at Helmholtz Munich