The immunosuppressive effect of methylmercury does not preclude development of autoimmunity in genetically susceptible mice

Bo Häggqvist, Said Havarinasab, Erik Björn, Per Hultman
Toxicology 2005 March 1, 208 (1): 149-64
Methylmercury (MeHg) is a common environmental pollutant due to both natural and anthropogenic sources. Although the central nervous system (CNS) is considered the critical organ for the toxic effect of MeHg, it has recently been suggested that the immune system might be at least as sensitive as the CNS. We have examined the effects of MeHg on the immune system in genetically metal-susceptible mice. Subcutaneous (sc) injections of 2 mg MeHg/kg body weight (bw) every third day (internal dose ca. 540 microg Hg/kg bw/day) to A.SW mice of the H-2(s) haplotype, caused during the first week a 47 and 9% reduction of B- and T-cells, respectively, which indicates immunosuppression. Subsequently, an autoimmune syndrome developed which shared certain features with the syndrome induced by inorganic mercury in H-2(s) mice, including antibodies targeting the 34 kDa nucleolar protein fibrillarin, increased expression of IL-4 mRNA, increase of Th2-type of immunoglobulins (IgE and IgG1), and increased MHC class II expression on B-cells. However, the response using MeHg was attenuated compared with even lower doses of Hg in the form of inorganic mercury, and specifically lacked the increased expression of IL-2 and IFN-gamma mRNA, the polyclonal B-cell activation (PBA), and the systemic immune-complex (IC) deposits which are induced by inorganic mercury. Increasing the dose of MeHg increased the titre of anti-nucleolar antibodies and shortened the induction time, but did not lead to stronger immunostimulation or systemic IC-deposits. The kidney and liver selectively accumulated MeHg, while the blood, spleen and lymph nodes showed lower levels of MeHg. The accumulation of MeHg and Hg(2+) increased throughout the 30-day period. The fraction of Hg(2+) in the kidney varied between 4 and 22%, and the lymph nodes showed a maximum of 30% Hg(2+). We conclude first that MeHg has quantitatively different effect on the immune system compared with inorganic mercury, and secondly that an initial immunosuppression induced by a xenobiotic does not preclude subsequent immunostimulation and autoimmunity.

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