Dose-response study of thimerosal-induced murine systemic autoimmunity.
Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2004 Jan 15 ;194(2):169-79. PMID: 14736497
The organic compound ethylmercurithiosalicylate (thimerosal), which is primarily present in the tissues as ethylmercury, has caused illness and several deaths due to erroneous handling when used as a disinfectant or as a preservative in medical preparations. Lately, possible health effects of thimerosal in childhood vaccines have been much discussed. Thimerosal is a well-known sensitizing agent, although usually of no clinical relevance. In rare cases, thimerosal has caused systemic immune reactions including acrodynia. We have studied if thimerosal might induce the systemic autoimmune condition observed in genetically susceptible mice after exposure to inorganic mercury. A.SW mice were exposed to 1.25-40 mg thimerosal/l drinking water for 70 days. Antinucleolar antibodies, targeting the 34-kDa protein fibrillarin, developed in a dose-related pattern and first appeared after 10 days in the two highest dose groups. The lowest observed adverse effect level (LOAEL) for antifibrillarin antibodies was 2.5 mg thimerosal/l, corresponding to an absorbed dose of 147 microg Hg/kg bw and a concentration of 21 and 1.9 microg Hg/g in the kidney and lymph nodes, respectively. The same LOAEL was found for tissue immune-complex deposits. The total serum concentration of IgE, IgG1, and IgG2a showed a significant dose-related increase in thimerosal-treated mice, with a LOAEL of 5 mg thimerosal/l for IgG1 and IgE, and 20 mg thimerosal/l for IgG2a. The polyclonal B-cell activation showed a significant dose-response relationship with a LOAEL of 10 mg thimerosal/l. Therefore, thimerosal induces in genetically susceptible mice a systemic autoimmune syndrome very similar to that seen after treatment with inorganic mercury, although a higher absorbed dose of Hg is needed using thimerosal. The autoimmune syndrome induced by thimerosal is different from the weaker and more restricted autoimmune reaction observed after treatment with an equipotent dose of methylmercury.