Protective role of selenium in the shortening of telomere length in newborns induced by in utero heavy metal exposure

Environ Res. 2020 Apr;183:109202. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2020.109202. Epub 2020 Jan 30.


The effects of toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), and lead (Pb), on telomere length (TL) have been reported previously. Although selenium (Se) is considered as an anti-oxidant which may detoxify the effects, there are no data on whether Se could protect against the TL-shortening effects of heavy metals. Thus, the aim of this study was to evaluate the protective role of Se against heavy metal-induced TL shortening. A birth cohort study was conducted in Myanmar in 2016, including 408 mother-infant pairs. First, pregnant women in the third trimester were interviewed concerning their socioeconomic, and pregnancy and birth characteristics using a pre-validated questionnaire. Maternal spot urine samples were collected after the interview. During the follow-up period (1-3 months), blood samples were collected from the umbilical cord at birth by local health workers. Metal concentrations were measured using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). TL was measured by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Relative TL was calculated as the ratio of telomere genes to single-copy genes. To evaluate the effect of Se on TL shortening, molar ratios were calculated. Linear regression analyses were performed to examine the associations between heavy metals and TL, individually and after adjustment for Se level. The effects of As, Cd, and Pb exposure on TL were smaller after adjustment for the Se level, especially for Pb (unadjusted β = -0.10; 95% CI: 0.18, -0.01; adjusted β = -0.03; 95% CI: 0.13, 0.05). On stratifying the data by Se concentration, there was no significant association between Cd or Pb exposure and TL in the high-Se group. Our study indicated a protective effect of Se against the TL shortening induced by heavy metal exposure, where the effect sizes were smaller after adjusting for the Se level, compared to individual metal exposure.

Keywords: Heavy metals; In-utero exposure; Myanmar; Selenium; Telomere length.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Metals, Heavy* / toxicity
  • Myanmar
  • Pregnancy
  • Selenium* / pharmacology
  • Telomere
  • Telomere Shortening*


  • Metals, Heavy
  • Selenium