Effect of thimerosal on the murine immune system : especially induction of systemic autoimmunity

Abstract: 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 The suppression lasted 2 weeks for CD4+ cells, but was superseded by a strong immunostimulation/proliferation including T- as well as B-cells, and polyclonal B-cell activation (PBA).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.