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Immunosuppressive and autoimmune effects of thimerosal in mice
Linköping University, Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Molecular and Immunological Pathology . Linköping University, Faculty of Health Sciences.
Linköping University, Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Molecular and Immunological Pathology . Linköping University, Faculty of Health Sciences.
Department of Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden.
Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, USA.
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2005 (English)In: Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, ISSN 0041-008X, Vol. 204, no 2, 109-121 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

The possible health effects of the organic mercury compound thimerosal (ethylmercurithiosalicylate), which is rapidly metabolized to ethylmercury (EtHg), have recently been much debated and the effect of this compound on the immune system is largely unknown. We therefore studied the effect of thimerosal by treating A.SW (H-2s) mice, susceptible to induction of autoimmunity by heavy metals, with 10 mg thimerosal/L drinking water (internal dose ca 590 μg Hg/kg body weight/day) for up to 30 days. The lymph node expression of IL-2 and IL-15 mRNA was increased after 2 days, and of IL-4 and IFN-γ mRNA after 6 and 14 days. During the first 14 days treatment, the number of splenocytes, including T and B cells as well as Ig-secreting cells decreased. A strong immunostimulation superseded after 30 days treatment with increase in splenic weight, number of splenocytes including T and B cells and Ig-secreting cells, and Th2- as well as Th-1-dependent serum immunoglobulins. Antinucleolar antibodies (ANoA) targeting the 34-kDa nucleolar protein fibrillarin, and systemic immune-complex deposits developed. The H-2s strains SJL and B10.S also responded to thimerosal treatment with ANoA. The A.TL and B10.TL strain, sharing background genes with the A.SW and B10.S strain, respectively, but with a different H-2 haplotype (t1), did not develop ANoA, linking the susceptibility to H-2. Thimerosal-treated H-2s mice homozygous for the nu mutation (SJL-nu/nu), or lacking the T-cell co-stimulatory molecule CD28 (B10.S–CD28−/−), did not develop ANoA, which showed that the autoimmune response is T-cell dependent. Using H-2s strains with targeted mutations, we found that IFN-γ and IL-6, but not IL-4, is important for induction of ANoA by thimerosal. The maximum added renal concentration of thimerosal (EtHg) and inorganic mercury occurred after 14 days treatment and was 81 μg Hg/g. EtHg made up 59% and inorganic mercury 41% of the renal mercury. In conclusion, the organic mercury compound thimerosal (EtHg) has initial immunosuppressive effects similar to those of MeHg. However, in contrast to MeHg, thimerosal treatment leads in genetically susceptible mice to a second phase with strong immunostimulation and autoimmunity, which is T-cell dependent, H-2 linked and may at least partly be due to the inorganic mercury derived from the metabolism of ethyl mercury.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2005. Vol. 204, no 2, 109-121 p.
Keyword [en]
Thimerosal; Ethylmercury; Mice; Immunosuppression; Autoimmunity
National Category
Medical and Health Sciences
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-13816DOI: 10.1016/j.taap.2004.08.019OAI: diva2:21749
Available from: 2006-04-21 Created: 2006-04-21
In thesis
1. Effect of thimerosal on the murine immune system: especially induction of systemic autoimmunity
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Effect of thimerosal on the murine immune system: especially induction of systemic autoimmunity
2006 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

The organic mercury compound ethylmercurithiosalicylate (thimerosal), an antiseptic and a preservative, has recently raised public health concern due to its presence in vaccines globally. Thimerosal dissociates in the body to thiosalicylate and ethyl mercury (EtHg), which is partly converted to inorganic mercuric mercury (Hg2+). The immunosuppressive, immunostimulatory, and de novo autoimmunogen effect of thimerosal in mice, as well as the accelerating/aggravating effect on spontaneous systemic autoimmunity including dose-response aspects were the subject of this thesis.

Thimerosal perorally (590 μg Hg/kg body weight (bw)/day) to genetically susceptible (H-2s) mice caused immunosuppression during the first week with reduction of the total number of splenocytes, T- and B-cells. The suppression lasted 2 weeks for CD4+ cells, but was superseded by a strong immunostimulation/proliferation including T- as well as B-cells, and polyclonal B-cell activation (PBA). Antinuclear antibodies targeting the 34-kDa nucleolar protein fibrillarin (AFA) appeared after 10 days, followed by renal mesangial and systemic vessel wall immune-complex (IC) deposits. The Lowest Observed Adverse Effect Level (LOAEL) was in the order AFA = glomerular and splenic vessel wall deposits < hyperimmunoglobulinemia < PBA. The LOAEL for AFA was 118 μg Hg/kg bw/day. The LOAEL for the different parameters of this thimerosal-induced systemic autoimmune condition (HgIA) was 3-11-fold higher compared with HgIA induced by HgCl2. The thimerosal-induced HgIA shared with HgCl2 a significant dose-response relationship, and requirement for: T-cells, the costimulatory factor CD28, the IFN-γ/IFN-γ-receptor pathway,but not IL-4. The mRNA expression in lymph nodes of IL-2, IFN-γ, IL-4, and IL-15 was significantly increased but not delayed compared with HgCl2.

Treatment with the ubiquitous organic Hg compound methyl Hg using equimolar doses of Hg (533 μg Hg/kg bw/day) caused a transient immunosuppression, followed by a weak immunostimulation and AFA. The IgG AFA isotypes induced by the organic Hg compounds MeHg and EtHg were stable and dominated by a Th1-like pattern over a broad time- and dose range. Treatment with inorganic HgCl2 caused a dose- and time-dependent pattern of IgG AFA isotypes. Low doses favored a Th1-like pattern, a high dose a balanced or Th2-like pattern. Middle-range doses showed initially a Th1-like pattern which gradually evolved into a balanced or Th2-like pattern. The qualitative difference in IgG AFA isotypes between organic and inorganic Hg may be due to differences in activation and/or suppression of T-helper cell subsets or factors influencing the Th1/Th2-function. Speciation of the renal Hg2+ concentration and comparison with the threshold dose for induction of AFA by HgCl2 showed that even with the lowest doses of thimerosal and MeHg used in this thesis, the AFA response might from a dose threshold point of view have been caused by conversion of the organic Hg species to Hg2+.

Primary treatment with inorganic Hg (HgCl2) accelerates/aggravates murine systemic autoimmunity, both spontaneous (genetic) and induced by other means. This capacity was assessed for thimerosal over a broad dose range using the (NZB X NZW)F1 hybrid mouse model. Significantly increased antinuclear antibodies (ANA) was seen after 4-7 weeks treatment (LOAEL 147 μg Hg/kg bw/day), and the response was dose-dependent up to 13 weeks. Renal mesangial and systemic vessel walls deposits similar to those in de novo HgIA were present after 7 weeks treatment. Twenty-two to 25 weeks treatment with thimerosal caused, in a dose-dependent fashion (LOAEL 295 μg Hg/kg bw/day), relocalization of the spontaneously developing glomerular IC deposits from the capillary vessel walls to the mesangium, which attenuated histological kidney damage and proteinuria, and increased survival. Thimerosal caused systemic vessel wall IC-deposits over a broad dose range: the Low Observed Adverse Effect Level (LOAEL) for renal and splenic vessel wall IC deposits was 18 and 9 μg Hg/kg bw/day, respectively. The No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) could not be determined for the latter, since deposits were present even with the lowest dose used.

Thimerosal causes in genetically susceptible mice an initial, transient immunosuppression which is superseded by a strong immunostimulation and systemic autoimmunity, sharing many characteristics with the HgIA induced by inorganic HgCl2. The IgG AFA isotype pattern is however qualitatively different, and the threshold dose substantially higher. In contrast, long-term treatment with thimerosal induces systemic vessel wall IC-deposits also using doses below those needed to induce HgIA de novo in H-2s mice.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Institutionen för molekylär och klinisk medicin, 2006
Linköping University Medical Dissertations, ISSN 0345-0082 ; 935
thimerosal, ethylmercury, autoimmunity, mice, immunosuppression, Th1, Th2
National Category
urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-6315 (URN)91-85497-71-1 (ISBN)
Public defence
2006-02-17, Linden, Entré 65, Campus US, Linköpings universitet, Linköping, 13:00 (English)
Available from: 2006-04-21 Created: 2006-04-21 Last updated: 2009-08-22

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Havarinasab, SaidHäggqvist, BoHultman, Per
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