Lead (Pb) or cadmium (Cd) exposure has been linked to atherosclerosis. Co-exposure of these two heavy metals often occurs in humans. Recent evidence has indicated a crucial role of DNA methylation in atherosclerosis, while Pb or Cd exposure has also been shown to alter DNA methylation. However, it is still unknown whether DNA methylation plays a role in the pathological mechanism of these two heavy metals in atherosclerosis.
We enrolled 738 participants (12-30 years) to investigate the association among concentrations of urine Pb or Cd, the 5mdC/dG value (a global DNA methylation marker) and the carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT). When each heavy metal was modeled separately, the results showed urine Pb and Cd concentrations were positively associated with the 5mdC/dG value and CIMT, respectively. When the two heavy metals were analyzed in the same model, urinary Pb concentrations were positively associated with the 5mdC/dG value and CIMT, while urinary Cd concentrations were only positively associated with the CIMT. When Pb and Cd are simultaneously considered in the same logistic regression model, the odds ratios (OR) of thicker CIMT (greater than 75th percentile) with one unit increase in ln-Pb level was 1.67 (95% C.I. = 1.17-2.46, P = 0.005) when levels of 5mdC/dG were above 50th percentile, which is higher than 5mdC/dG bellow the 50th percentile (OR = 1.50 (95% C.I. = 0.96-2.35), P = 0.076). In structural equation model (SEM), Pb or Cd levels are directly associated with CIMT. Moreover, Pb or Cd had an indirect association with CIMT through the 5mdC/dG. When we considered Pb and Cd together, Pb levels had a direct association with CIMT and an indirect association with CIMT through the 5mdC/dG value, while Cd only had a direct association with CIMT.
Our findings imply that Pb and Cd exposure might be associated with subclinical atherosclerosis, and global DNA methylation might mediate Pb-associated subclinical atherosclerosis in this young population. Future effort is necessary to elucidate the causal relationship.
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