Prenatal immunotoxicant exposure and postnatal autoimmune disease

Gestational exposure to DES may interfere with normal development of self-tolerance


Reports in humans and rodents indicate that immune development may be altered following perinatal exposure to immunotoxic compounds, including chemotherapeutics, corticosteroids, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and polyhalogenated hydrocarbons.

Effects from such exposure may be more dramatic or persistent than following exposure during adult life. For example, prenatal exposure to the insecticide chlordane or to the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon benzo[(italic)a(/italic)]pyrene produces what appears to be lifelong immunosuppression in mice.

Whether prenatal immunotoxicant exposure may predispose the organism to postnatal autoimmune disease remains largely unknown. In this regard, the therapeutic immunosuppressant cyclosporin A (CsA) crosses the placenta poorly. However, lethally irradiated rodents exposed to CsA postsyngeneic bone marrow transplant (i.e., during re-establishment of the immune system) develop T-cell-mediated autoimmune disease, suggesting this drug may produce a fundamental disruption in development of self-tolerance by T cells. The environmental contaminant 2,3,7, 8-tetrachlorodibenzo-(italic)p(/italic)-dioxin (TCDD) crosses the placenta and produces fetal thymic effects (italic)in vivo(/italic) similar to effects of CsA in fetal thymic organ culture, including inhibited thymocyte maturation and reduced expression of thymic major histocompatability complex class II molecules.

These observations led to the suggestion that gestational exposure to TCDD may interfere with normal development of self-tolerance. Possibly supporting this hypothesis, when mice predisposed to development of autoimmune disease were treated with TCDD during gestation, postnatal autoimmunity was exacerbated. Similar results have been reported for mice exposed to diethylstilbestrol during development.

These reports suggest that prenatal exposure to certain immunotoxicants may play a role in postnatal expression of autoimmunity.

  • Download the full study (free access) Prenatal immunotoxicant exposure and postnatal autoimmune disease, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Environ Health Perspectives, NCBI PubMed PMC 1566248, 1999 Oct.
  • Image credit Michelle Robinson.

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