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Lead Modulation of Macrophages Causes Multiorgan Detrimental Health Effects


  • Jane Kasten-Jolly,

    1. Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Albany, NY, USA
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  • David A. Lawrence

    Corresponding author
    1. Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Albany, NY, USA
    2. Department of Environment Health and Biomedical Sciences, School of Public Health, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY, USA
    • Correspondence to: David A. Lawrence, Laboratory of Immunology, Center for Medical Sciences, 150 New Scotland Avenue, Albany, NY 12208, USA.

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  • Contract Grant Sponsor: NIH.

  • Contract Grant Numbers: ES03179 and ES013857.


The environmental toxicant lead (Pb) has detrimental effects on a number of organ systems, including the immune system. Pb exposure decreases host immune defenses against numerous microorganisms and cancer. Although Pb effects on humoral and cell-mediated immunity as well as on erythrocyte, neural, and renal pathophysiology have been well documented, there are few reports regarding Pb's impact on innate immunity, which can affect multiorgan processes. This review focuses on Pb modulation of a key innate immune cell, the macrophage. The impact of Pb on macrophages in different organs, on immature versus mature macrophages, and on low versus high Pb concentrations is discussed. Pb decreases phagocytosis and chemotaxis of macrophages and affects nitric oxide production and eicosanoid metabolism in mature macrophages. Pretreatment of macrophages with Pb increases TNF-α secretion after in vitro stimulation with lipopolysaccharide; however, Pb exposure decreases in vivo intracellular pathogen killing. More recent evidence from mouse studies indicates that even low, environmentally relevant, blood concentrations of Pb result in increased phagocytosis of erythrocytes and decreased expression of interferon-gamma-inducible GTPases, p65-GBP, and p47-IRG, which are necessary for intracellular pathogen killing. Taking into account the effects of Pb on macrophages, the review describes posited mechanisms to account for Pb-altered health effects; Pb effects on heme levels may play a key role as well as Pb's preferential induction of helper type-2 T (Th2) cells and M2 macrophages, which is related to oxidative stress. The discussion links old findings with new, thereby adding new insight into the effects of Pb on macrophages and the resultant compromised immunity and health.