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Plastic leaching illustration

Plasticizer interaction with the heart

Calling an ambulance during an emergency, emailing a journal article before a 5 p.m. deadline and maintaining conditions during the fifth week of a 6-week lab study, without altering the light or temperature, requires electricity and translates into time, money and lives saved. During critical moments, we appreciate the tiny particles and ions in electric currents that power our phones, computers or laboratory equipment. We seldom think about the speed of these connections or potential disruptors when conditions are stable. The same applies to the electric currents, or electrophysiology, of our heart.

Arrhythmias affect millions of Americans but can be controlled with routine screenings and preventive care. In an intensive care setting, helping a patient maintain a steady heart rate, especially if they are at risk for cardiac complications, may support a faster recovery, shorter hospital stay, reduced health care costs and improved health outcomes, such as avoiding complications from heart failure or stroke.

A preclinical study, entitled “Plasticizer Interaction With the Heart,” appears in the July issue of Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology and examines the role plastic exposure, akin to exposure in a medical setting, has on heart rhythm disruptions and arrhythmias.

changes in heart rhythm due to plastics

New preclinical research finds acute exposure to MEHP, a common plasticizer used in medical equipment, increases risk for alternans and arrhythmias, disruptions in heart rhythm. The images above show changes in heart rhythm, measured by slowed epicardial conduction velocity, enhanced action potential prolongation and impaired sinus node activity.

The research team, led by researchers at Children’s National Health System, discovered increased risks for irregular heart rhythms after exposing intact, in vitro heart models to 30 minutes of mono-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (MEHP), a metabolite from Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). DEHP is a chemical commonly used to make plastics pliable in FDA-approved medical devices. This phthalate accounts for 40% of the weight of blood storage bags and up to 80% of the weight of tubes used in an intensive care setting, such as for assisted feeding or breathing, and for catheters used in diagnostics or to conduct minimally invasive cardiac procedures.

The team chose to study the heart’s reaction to 60 µM of MEHP, a level comparable to stored blood levels of MEHP observed in pediatric patients and in neonatal exchange transfusion procedures. They found 30-minute exposure to MEHP slowed atrioventricular conduction and increased the atrioventricular node effective refractory period. MEHP prolonged action potential duration time, enhanced action potential triangulation, increased the ventricular effective refractory period and slowed epicardial conduction velocity, which may be due to the inhibition of Nav 1.5, or sodium current.

“We chose to study the impact of MEHP exposure on cardiac electrophysiology at concentrations that are observed in an intensive care setting, since plastic medical products are known to leach these chemicals into a patient’s bloodstream,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., a principal investigator with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “In critical conditions, a patient may have a blood transfusion, require extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, undergo cardiopulmonary bypass or require dialysis or intravenous fluid administration. All of these scenarios can lead to plastic chemical exposure. Our research team wants to investigate how these plastic chemicals can impact cardiac health.”

In this review, Dr. Posnack’s team mentions one reason for the observed changes in the preclinical heart models may be due to the structure of phthalates, which resemble hormones and can interfere with a variety of biological processes. Due to their low molecular weight, these chemicals can interact directly with ion channels, nuclear receptors and other cellular targets.

Existing epidemiological research shows associations between exposure to phthalates and adverse health outcomes, including metabolic disturbances, reproductive disorders, inflammatory conditions, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease. This is the first study to examine the link between cardiac electrophysiology in intact hearts and exposure to MEHP, comparable to levels observed in an ICU.

Dr. Posnack’s team previously found DEHP reduced cellular electrical coupling in cardiomyocyte cell models, which slowed conduction velocity and produced an arrhythmogenic phenotype. A microarray analysis found heart cells treated with DEHP led to mRNA changes in genes responsible for contracting and calcium handling. Another preclinical study showed DEHP altered nervous system regulation of the cardiovascular system. Future studies to expand on this research may include the use of larger preclinical models or human assessments. For the latter, stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes can be used to compare the safety profile of plastic chemicals with potential alternatives.

An accompanying editorial, entitled “Shocking Aspects of Nonconductive Plastics,” authored by cardiology researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, puts this novel research into perspective. Like Dr. Posnack, the team notes that while the clinical impact plasticizers have on heart health still needs to be determined, the work contributes to compelling data among multiple researchers and shows DEHP and MEHP are not inert substances.

“Toxic plasticizers in children’s toys and baby products hit public headlines 20 years ago, but exposure to these compounds is up to 25x higher in patients undergoing complex medical procedures,” write the University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. “We readily (and unknowingly) administer these compounds, and at times in high quantity, to some of our most vulnerable patients. This work highlights the need for further investigation into short and long-term plasticizer exposure on cardiac electrophysiology.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released a public health statement about DEHP in 2002, noting more research in humans is needed to issue formal warnings against this phthalate.

ATSDR states there is no conclusive evidence about the adverse health effects of children exposed to DEHP in a medical setting, such as procedures that require the use of flexible tubing to administer intravenous fluids or medication. However, the CDC statement includes limits of DEHP exposure, based on preclinical models, used to guide upper DEHP limits in consumer products, including food packaging, drinking water, and air quality in the workplace.

“It’s important to note that this was a preliminary study performed on an ex vivo model that is largely resilient to arrhythmias”, says Rafael Jaimes III, Ph.D., the first author of the study and a senior scientist at Children’s National. “Due to the nature of the design, it was somewhat alarming that we found such significant effects. I predict that electrophysiological disturbances will be more pronounced in models that more closely resemble humans. These types of models should absolutely be studied.”

“And, importantly, our results may incentivize the development and use of new products that are manufactured without phthalates,” Dr. Posnack adds.

These questions are powering Dr. Posnack and her team through a decade-long, multi-institution research investigation to understand how plastic chemicals and medical device biomaterials can impact cardiac health.

Additional study authors for this paper include Damon McCullough, B.S., Bryan Siegel, M.D., Luther Swift, Ph.D., Daniel McInerney, B.S., and James Hiebert, B.S., with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and Children’s National Heart Institute, part of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.; Erick A. Perez-Alday, Ph.D., and Larisa G Tereshchenko, M.D., Ph.D., with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore.; Javier Saiz, Ph.D., and Beatriz Trenor, Ph.D., with Ci2B-Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain and Jiansong Sheng, Ph.D., from CiPA Lab, LLC, in Rockville, Md.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R00ES023477 and R01HL139472), Children’s Research Institute and Children’s National Heart Institute. NVIDIA corporation provided graphics processing, with partial support by the Direccion General de Politica Cientifica de la Generalitat Valenciana (PROMETEU2016/088).

Nikki Gillum Posnack

What are the health effects of plastics?

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute, is an early-stage investigator examining the impact plastic chemical exposure has on the developing hearts of newborns and young children.

For newborns or children in the pediatric intensive care unit, plastic tubing is part of daily life. It delivers life-sustaining blood transfusions, liquid nutrition and air to breathe. But small amounts of the chemicals in the plastic of this tubing and other medical devices can leak into the patient’s bloodstream. The potential effects of these chemicals on the developing hearts of newborns and very young children are not well understood.

One researcher, Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute, aims to change that and shares her early insights, funded by the National Center for Advancing Translation Science (NCATS), in an NCATS news feature.

“While plastics have revolutionized the medical field, we know chemicals in plastics leach into the body and may have unintended effects,” Posnack said. “The heart is sensitive to toxins, so we want to look at the effect of these plastics on the most sensitive patient population: kids who are recovering from heart surgery and already prone to cardiac complications.”

Photo of nurses in the cardiac intensive care unit at Children's National

Can pyruvate support metabolic function following heart surgery?

Photo of nurses in the cardiac intensive care unit at Children's National

Nurses rush a child to the cardiac intensive care unit at Children’s National Health System.

Can pyruvate, the end product of glycolysis, help improve cardiovascular function in children who have cardiopulmonary bypass surgery and suffer from low cardiac output syndrome (LCOS)? This question is one that Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D., a staff scientist at Children’s National Heart Institute, a division of Children’s National Health System, is studying, thanks to a two-year grant from the American Heart Association.

The competitive grant awards Dr. Jaimes with $110,000 to study how pyruvate may help improve cardiac output among pediatric patients with LCOS. The compound aims to stimulate metabolic function, now treated by inotropic agents, such as dobutamine and milrinone. These agents ensure optimal delivery of oxygen from the heart to the brain, as well as to other organs in the body, following heart surgery. While these agents help patients with cardiac dysfunction, there is still a critical need for safe and effective therapies.

“If there’s any detriment in cardiac output, the heart’s function begins to degrade,” explains Dr. Jaimes. “You see a downward spiral effect with reduced cardiac output because the heart is dependent on its own perfusion. It needs to pump blood throughout the body to survive.”

This is where the pyruvate study, and the grant, will be applied: Can pyruvate target the essential muscle of the heart and reverse this cardiac destabilization – and as soon as possible?

“By increasing the metabolic output of the heart’s local muscle, cardiac output increases,” Dr. Jaimes explains. “That’s going to lead to better recovery.”

Better recovery could be measured by how fast a child recovers from heart surgery as well as how much time they spend in the hospital, clinically referred to as throughput. A faster recovery could also influence a child’s quality of life and reduce overall health care costs.

Based on preliminary data that shows pyruvate improves cardiac function in experimental models after ischemic insult, which is what happens when pediatric patients undergo cardiac surgery, Dr. Jaimes believes the results will likely replicate themselves in his preclinical models.

To start, he’ll test pyruvate using 100 blood samples and discarded tissue from patients. The blood samples will be tested for metabolic markers, including measured pyruvate levels.

Part of what encouraged Dr. Jaimes to study how this compound could complement or replace standard therapies was the encouragement he received from his mentors in the field.

“Nobody has looked into using pyruvate for almost 30 years,” says Dr. Jaimes. “It’s not commercially favorable, there’s no patent on it, it doesn’t have a lot of marketability and there are no financial incentives, so it’s been put aside.”

As part of a discussion with cardiologists at a medical conference in Washington, Dr. Jaimes brought up the idea of using pyruvate for pediatric heart surgeries and received positive feedback.

“Once everyone’s eyes lit up, I knew I was on to something,” says Dr. Jaimes about the encouragement he received to pursue this study.

“You put lactate and glucose in your IV solutions,” adds Dr. Jaimes. “Pyruvate is an essential nutrient. It’s almost an essential sugar so there’s no reason not to put it in. If these cardiologists are intrigued by the project, maybe the American Heart Association will be, too.”

In addition to funding the study, which could support future research about how metabolic makers in the blood can be stimulated to fast-track recovery following heart surgery, the American Heart Association grant is specific to pediatric health outcomes.

“The current state of pharmaceutical treatment for patients recovering from cardiac surgery is designed and created for adults,” says Dr. Jaimes. “From our research in pediatrics, we know that children aren’t small adults.”

Dr. Jaimes explains that children are different on an anatomical and physiological level. Their cells even look and function different, compared to adult cells, because they haven’t matured yet.

While congenital heart defects are rare, they affect 1 percent, or 40,000 births worldwide, they often require multiple surgeries throughout a child’s lifespan. LCOS impacts 25 percent of patients following cardiopulmonary bypass and the timing of treatment is important. In severe cases, insufficient cardiac output following surgery could impact a child’s long-term development, ranging from reasoning, learning, attention and executive function, to developing age-appropriate language and social skills.

“The metabolic insufficiencies I’m looking at, which may help improve the muscle function of the heart, are just one piece of a bigger puzzle in pediatric cardiology,” notes Dr. Jaimes about ongoing research at Children’s National Heart Institute. “We already know pyruvate is safe. We just have to see if it’s effective in supporting a patient’s recovery in the intensive care unit.”

Dr. Jaimes will work with his research mentor Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute, on this preclinical study throughout the grant’s lifecycle, which starts in early January 2019 and ends in late December 2020.

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Do plastic chemicals contribute to the sudden death of patients on dialysis?

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor with the Children’s National Heart Institute, continues to explore how repeat chemical exposure from medical devices influences cardiovascular function.

In a review published in HeartRhythmNikki Posnack, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute, and Larisa Tereshchenko, M.D., Ph.D., FHRS, a researcher with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at Oregon Health and Science University, establish a strong foundation for a running hypothesis: Replacing BPA- and DEHP- leaching plastics for alternative materials used to create medical devices may help patients on dialysis, and others with impaired immune function, live longer.

While Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note clinical studies and randomized controlled trials are needed to test this theory, they gather a compelling argument by examining the impact exposure to chemicals from plastics used in dialysis have on a patient’s short- and long-term health outcomes, including sudden cardiac death (SCD).

“As our society modifies our exposure to plastics to mitigate health risks, we should think about overexposure to plastics in a medical setting,” says Posnack. “The purpose of the review in HeartRhythm is to gather data about the impact chemical compounds, leached from plastic devices, have on cardiovascular outcomes for patients spending prolonged periods of time in the hospital.”

In this review, the authors explore chemical risk exposures in a medical setting, starting with factors that influence sudden cardiac death (SCD) among dialysis patients.

Why study dialysis patients?

SCD in dialysis patients accounts for one-third of deaths in this population. This prompts a need to develop prevention strategies, especially among patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

The highest mortality rate observed among dialysis patients is during the first year of hemodialysis, a dialysis process that requires a machine to take the place of the kidneys and remove waste from the bloodstream and replenish it with minerals, such as potassium, sodium and calcium. During this year, mortality during hemodialysis is observed more frequently during the first three months of treatment, especially among older patients.

Possible reasons for an increased risk of an earlier death include chemical exposure, which is casually associated with altered cardiac function, as well as genetic risks for irregular heart rhythms and heart failure. In the HeartRhythm review, Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack analyze factors that influence mortality:

Hemodialysis treatment, dialysis, is associated with plastic chemical exposure

Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note that dialysis tubing and catheters are commonly manufactured using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) polymers. The phthalate plastics used to soften PVC can easily leech if exposed to lipid-like substances, like blood. Research shows phthalate chemical concentrations increase during a four-hour dialysis.

Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) is a common plastic used to manufacture dialysis tubes, thanks to its structure and economy.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is another common material used in medical device manufacturing. From the membranes of medical tools to resins, or external coatings and adhesives, BPA leaves behind a chemical residue on PVC medical devices.

In reviewing the research, the authors find dialysis patients are often exposed to high levels of DEHP and BPA. The amount of exposure to these chemicals varies in regards to room temperature, time of contact, other circuit coatings and the flow rate of dialysis. A faster flow rate correlates with reductions in chemical leaching and lower mortality rates.

Plastic chemical exposure is casually associated with altered cardiac function

Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note a causal relationship already exists between chemicals absorbed from plastics and cardiovascular outcomes.

Dr. Posnack’s previous research found BPA concentrations impaired electrical conduction in neonatal cardiomyocytes – young, developing heart cells – potentially altering the heart’s normal rhythm and function.

To the best of their knowledge, no clinical research has been conducted on DEHP exposure and SCD. However, proof-of-concept models find in vivo phthalate exposure alters autonomic regulation, which can slow down natural heart-rate rhythm and create a lag in recovery time to stressful stimuli. For humans, this type of stressful stimulation would be equivalent to recovering from a bike ride, car accident, or in this case, ongoing dialysis treatment with impaired immune function.

In other models, BPA exposure has been shown to cause bradycardia, or a delayed heart rate. In excised whole heart models, BPA has also been shown to alter cardiac electrical activity.

Abnormal electrophysiological substrate in end-stage renal disease

Since the heart and kidneys work in tandem to transport blood throughout the body, and manage vital functions, such as our heart rate, blood flow and breathing, the authors cite additional factors that lead to ongoing heart and kidney problems, with a look at end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

General heart-function kidney risks include abnormal electrophysiological (EP) substrate, the underlying electrical activity of the cardiac tissue, and genetic risk factors, including the TBX3 gene, a gene associated with a unique positioning of the heart and SCD.

“We don’t want to cite alarm about having a medical procedure or about relying on external help, such as dialysis, for proper kidney function,” says Posnack. “Especially since dialysis is a life-saving medical intervention for patients with inadequate kidney function.”

Pre-existing abnormal EP substrate interacts with plastic chemical exposure in incident dialysis, which increases risk of SCD in genetically predisposed ESRD patients

To summarize their findings, Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack list a handful of support areas, starting with observations about reductions in cardiovascular mortality and SCD following kidney transplants. They note hemodialysis catheters are associated with larger DEHP exposure and a higher risk of SCD, compared to arteriovenous fistulas, highways surgically created to connect blood from the artery to the vein.

Drs. Posnack and Tereshchenko also note a correlative observation about higher SCD rates observed six hours after hemodialysis, when peak levels of DEHP and BPA are circulating in the bloodstream.

To compare and control for these factors among dialysis patients, the researchers cite different mortality patterns with hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. Patients on hemodialysis experience higher mortality during the first year of treatment, compared to peritoneal dialysis, who have higher mortality rates after the second year of treatment. Hemodialysis relies on a machine to take the place of kidney function, while peritoneal dialysis relies on a catheter, a small tube surgically inserted into the stomach.

“Our goal is to build on our previous research findings by analyzing variables that have yet to be studied before, and to update the field of medicine in the process,” says Dr. Posnack. “This includes investigating the cardiovascular risks of using BPA- and DEHP-materials to construct medical devices. Ultimately, we hope to determine whether plastic materials contribute to cardiovascular risks, and investigate whether patients might benefit from the use of alternative materials for medical devices.

Drs. Tereshchenko and Posnack note that despite the associations between chemical exposure from medical devices and increased cardiovascular risks, there are no restrictions in the United States on the use of phthalates and BPA chemicals used to manufacture medical devices.

Their future research will explore how replacing BPA- and DEHP-leaching plastics influence mortality and morbidity rates of ESRD patients on dialysis, as well as other patients exposed to repeat chemical exposure, such as patients having cardiac surgery.

“We want to make sure we identify and then work to minimize any potential risks of plastic exposure in a medical setting,” adds Dr. Posnack. “Our goal is to put the health and safety of patients first.”

Dr. Posnack’s research is funded by two grants (R01HL139472, R00ES023477) from the National Institutes of Health.

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Examining BPA’s impact on developing heart cells

Nikki Gillum Posnack

“We know that once this chemical enters the body, it can be bioactive and therefore can influence how heart cells function,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D. “This is the first study to look at the impact BPA exposure can have on heart cells that are still developing.”

More than 8 million pounds of bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical used in manufacturing plastics, is produced each year for consumer goods and medical products. This endocrine disruptor reaches 90 percent of the population, and excessive exposure to BPA, e.g., plastic bottles, cash register receipts, and even deodorant, is associated with adverse cardiovascular events that range from heart arrhythmias and angina to atherosclerosis, the leading cause of death in the U.S.

To examine the impact BPA could have in children, researchers with Children’s National Heart Institute and the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation evaluated the short-term risks of BPA exposure in a preclinical setting. This experimental research finds developing heart cells respond to short-term BPA exposure with slowed heart rates, irregular heart rhythms and calcium instabilities.

While more research is needed to provide clinical recommendations, this preclinical model paves the way for future study designs to see if young patients exposed to BPA from medical devices or surgical procedures have adverse cardiac events and altered cardiac function.

“Existing research explores the impact endocrine disruptors, specifically BPA, have on adults and their cardiovascular and kidney function,” notes Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., a study author and assistant professor at Children’s National and The George Washington University. “We know that once this chemical enters the body, it can be bioactive and therefore can influence how heart cells function. This is the first study to look at the impact BPA exposure can have on heart cells that are still developing.”

The significance of this research is that plastics have revolutionized the way clinicians and surgeons treat young patients, especially patients with compromised immune or cardiac function.

Implications of Dr. Posnack’s future research may incentivize the development of alternative products used by medical device manufacturers and encourage the research community to study the impact of plastics on sensitive patient populations.

“It’s too early to tell how this research will impact the development of medical devices and equipment used in intensive care settings,” notes Dr. Posnack. “We do not want to interfere with clinical treatments, but, as scientists, we are curious about how medical products and materials can be improved. We are extending this research right now by examining the impact of short-term BPA exposure on human heart cells, which are developed from stem cells.”

This research, which appears as an online advance in Nature’s Scientific Reports, was supported by the National Institutes of Health under awards R00ES023477, RO1HL139472 and UL1TR000075, Children’s Research Institute and the Children’s National Heart Institute. NVIDIA Corporation provided GPUs, computational devices, for this study.

NPosnack-Heart-image

NIH funding to improve devices and safeguard cardiovascular health

Nearly 15 million blood transfusions are performed each year in the U.S., and pediatric patients alone receive roughly 425,000 transfused units. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as bisphenol A and di-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate (DEHP), can leach from some plastic devices used in such transfusions. However, it remains unclear how many complications following a transfusion can be attributed to the interplay between local and systemic reactions to these chemical contaminants.

NPosnack-Heart-image

Top: Live, excised heart that is being perfused with a crystalloid buffer via the aorta. The heart is stained with a voltage-sensitive fluorescent dye, which is excited by an LED light source. Bottom, right: Cardiac action potentials are optically mapped across the epicardial surface in real-time by monitoring changes in the fluorescence signal that are proportional to changes in transmembrane voltage. Bottom, left: An activation map (middle) depicts the speed of electrical conduction across the heart surface. Credit: Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D.; Luther Swift, Ph.D.; Manelle Ramadan, B.S.; Bryan Siegel, M.D.; James Hiebert, B.S., all of Children’s National Health System; and Daniel McInerney, student at The George Washington University.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute within the National Institutes of Health has awarded a $3.4 million, five-year grant to Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute within the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI) at Children’s National Health System, to answer that question and to provide insights that could accelerate development of safer biomaterials.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, patients who are undergoing IV therapy, blood transfusion, cardiopulmonary bypass or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or who receive nutrition through feeding support tubes have the potential to be exposed to DEHP.

Posnack led a recent study that found that an experimental model exposed to DEHP experienced altered autonomic regulation, heart rate variability and cardiovascular reactivity and reported the findings Nov. 6, 2017, in the American Journal of Physiology. The pre-clinical model study is the first to show such an association between phthalate chemicals used in everyday medical devices like IV tubing and cardiovascular health.

In the follow-on research, Posnack and colleagues will:

  • Use in vivo and whole heart models to define the extent to which biomaterial leaching and chemical exposure alters cardiovascular and autonomic function in experimental models
  • Determine whether biocompatibility and incidental chemical exposure are linked to cardiovascular and autonomic abnormalities experienced by pediatric patients post transfusion
  • Compare and contrast alternative biomaterials, chemicals and manufacturing techniques to identify safer transfusion device options.

“Ultimately, we hope to strengthen the evidence base used to inform decisions by the scientific, medical and regulatory communities about whether chemical additives that have endocrine-disrupting properties should be used to manufacture medical devices,” Posnack says. “Our findings also will highlight incentives that could accelerate development of alternative biomaterials, additives and fabrication techniques to improve safety for patients undergoing transfusion.”

Nikki Gillum Posnack

Experimental model study links phthalates and cardiovascular health

Nikki Gillum Posnack

“Because phthalate chemicals are known to migrate out of plastic products, our study highlights the importance of adopting safer materials, chemical additives and/or surface coatings for use in medical devices to reduce the risk of inadvertent exposure,” explains study senior author Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D.

An experimental model exposed to di-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate (DEHP), a chemical that can leach from plastic-based medical devices, experienced altered autonomic regulation, heart rate variability and cardiovascular reactivity, according to a study published online Nov. 6, 2017 by the American Journal of Physiology. The pre-clinical model study is the first to show such an association between phthalate chemicals used in everyday medical devices like IV tubing and cardiovascular health.

“Plastics have revolutionized medical devices, transformed how we treat blood-based diseases and helped to make innovative cardiology procedures possible,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., study senior author and assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute within the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation (SZI) at Children’s National Health System. “Because phthalate chemicals are known to migrate out of plastic products, our study highlights the importance of adopting safer materials, chemical additives and/or surface coatings for use in medical devices to reduce the risk of inadvertent exposure.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration, patients who are undergoing IV therapy, blood transfusion, cardiopulmonary bypass or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or who receive nutrition through feeding support tubes have the potential to be exposed to DEHP.

Patients undergoing extensive interventions to save their lives may be exposed to multiple plastic-based devices that supply oxygen and nutrition or that pump newly oxygenated blood to oxygen-starved organs.

“These interventions keep very fragile kids alive. What’s most important is getting patients the care they need when they need it,” Posnack says. “In the biomaterials field, our ultimate goal is to reduce inadvertent risks to patients that can result from contact with plastic products by identifying replacement materials or safer coatings to lower overall risk.”

In order to assess the safety of phthalate chemicals used in such medical devices, the Children’s-led research team implanted adult experimental models with radiofrequency transmitters that monitored their heart rate variability, blood pressure and autonomic regulation. Then, they exposed the experimental models to DEHP, a softener used in making the plastic polymer, polyvinyl chloride, flexible.

DEHP-treated pre-clinical models had decreased heart rate variability with lower-than-normal variation in the intervals between heart beats. The experimental models also showed an exaggerated mean arterial pressure response to ganglionic blockade. And in response to a stressor, the experimental models in the treatment group displayed enhanced cardiovascular reactivity as well as prolonged blood pressure recovery, according to the study team.

“The autonomic nervous system is a part of the nervous system that automatically regulates such essential functions as blood pressure and breathing rate without any conscious effort by the individual,” Posnack adds. “Because alterations in the autonomic balance provide an early warning sign of trouble – before symptoms of hypertension or atherosclerosis manifest – our findings underscore the importance of additional studies to explore the potential impact of phthalate chemicals on organ function.”

Billie Lou Short, M.D., chief of Children’s Division of Neonatology, called the paper an “important study” that builds on a foundation laid in the late 199os by Children’s researchers who were the first to show that plasticizers migrated from tubing in the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) circuit. Children’s researchers also led a study published in 2004 that evaluated the effect of plasticizers on the human reproductive system. A small number of adolescents who had undergone ECMO as newborns did not experience the complications that had been seen in in experimental models, Dr. Short says.

Posnack’s study co-authors include Rafael Jaimes III, Ph.D., SZI staff scientist; Meredith Sherman, SZI research technician; and Adam Swiercz, Narine Muselimyan and Paul J. Marvar, all of The George Washington University.