The comet assay is frequently used in human biomonitoring for the detection of exposure to genotoxic agents. Peripheral blood samples are most frequently used and tested either as whole blood or after isolation of lymphocytes (i.e. peripheral blood mononuclear cells, PBMC). To investigate a potential impact of lymphocyte isolation on induced DNA damage in human blood samples, we exposed blood ex vivo to mutagens with different modes of genotoxic action. The comet assay was performed either directly with whole blood at the end of the exposure period or with lymphocytes isolated directly after exposure. In addition to the recommended standard protocol for lymphocyte isolation, a shortened protocol was established to optimise the isolation procedure. The results indicate that the effects of induced DNA strand breaks and alkali-labile sites induced by ionising radiation and alkylants, respectively, are significantly reduced in isolated lymphocytes. In contrast, oxidative DNA base damage (induced by potassium bromate) and stable bulky adducts (induced by benzo[a]pyrene-7,8-dihydrodiol-9,10-epoxide; BPDE) seem to be less affected. Our findings suggest that in vivo-induced DNA damage might also be reduced in isolated lymphocytes in comparison with the whole blood depending of the types of DNA damage induced. Because only small genotoxic effects can generally be expected in human biomonitoring studies with the comet assay after occupational and environmental exposure to genotoxic agents, any loss might be relevant and should be avoided. The possibility of such effects and their potential impact on variability of comet assay results in human biomonitoring should be considered when performing or evaluating such kind of studies.
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