Our immune system is made of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend our body and protect against disease. There is increasing evidence that environmental exposures, like some pesticides or PCBs, may reduce the function and effectiveness of the immune system. This may, in turn, increase susceptibility to infection, reduce response to vaccinations, and trigger potential autoimmune responses, in which the body wrongly attacks its own healthy tissue.
What NIEHS Is Doing
NIEHS supports research in the field of immunotoxicology, which explores how toxic environmental exposures may alter immune system function. Examples of NIEHS-supported projects include:
- The impact of early exposure to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) on vaccine response in children
- The impact of arsenic exposure during pregnancy on the mother’s vaccine response and susceptibility to infection
- Research on the mechanisms by which the environment influences epigenetic immune programming
- An exploration of how respiratory silica leads to a breach in B cell tolerance and the development of autoimmunity
- Research to understand how toxicant-triggered autoimmune disease can be prevented by dietary modulation of cellular lipids
NIEHS is also interested in projects examining the effect of childhood infections on the body’s response to environmental contaminants later in life, as well as possible synergistic effects between environmental factors and infectious agents.
There is growing evidence for an environmental component in the development of autoimmunity and autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks normal, healthy tissues and organs in the body. Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and psoriasis are just a few examples of autoimmune diseases.
NIEHS-funded research is examining the role environmental exposures play in the development and exacerbation of autoimmune diseases, and the biological mechanisms involved. For example, NIEHS-supported scientists are studying the relationship between autoimmune disease and exposure to silica and mercury, mechanisms involved in inflammation induced by ultraviolet light among people with the autoimmune disease lupus, and the role of trichlolorethylene (TCE) exposure in the development of autoimmune liver disease.
For additional information on what NIEHS grantees are doing, visit our Who We Fund tool.
Mike Humble, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator, Basic Science
P.O. Box 12233Mail Drop K3-15Durham, N.C. 27709