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 metals, may reduce the function and effectiveness of the immune system. In turn, this may 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. For example, NIEHS-funded researchers are studying:
- The impact of early life 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.
- The mechanisms by which the environment influences which immune genes are turned on or off, called epigenetic immune programming.
- The possible link between breathing in silica and loss of immune cell tolerance causing the immune system to attack healthy tissues and organs.
- How toxicant-triggered autoimmune disease can be prevented by modifying intake of dietary lipids.
NIEHS is also interested in 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 researchers are examining the role environmental exposures play in the development and progression 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, as well as the role of 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