• diabetes;
  • cytokines;
  • Th1;
  • Th2 cells;
  • autoantibodies;
  • in vivo animal models

In susceptible mice, the heavy metal ion mercury is able to induce a strong immune activation, which resembles a T helper 2 (Th2) type of immune response and is characterized by a polyclonal B cell activation, formation of high levels of IgG1 and IgE antibodies, production of autoantibodies of different specificities and development of renal IgG deposits. In the present study, we analysed the in vivo effects of mercury in nonobese diabetic (NOD) mice, which is believed to develop a spontaneous Th1 cell-mediated autoimmune diabetes similar to type 1 diabetes in humans. Three weeks of treatment with mercury induced a strong Th2 like immune/autoimmune response in NOD mice. This response was characterized by an intensive increase in splenic IgG1 antibody secreting cells, a marked elevation in serum IgE levels, a substantial increase in splenic IL-4 mRNA, but a significant decrease in splenic IFN-γ mRNA. Mercury-induced IgG1 antibodies were mainly against ssDNA, TNP and thyroglobulin, but not against nucleolar antigen. Moreover, mercury-injected NOD mice developed high titres of IgG1 deposits in the kidney glomeruli. We further tested if the generated Th2 response could interfere with the development of insulitis and diabetes in NOD mice. We found that three weeks of treatment with mercury was also able to significantly suppress the development of insulitis and postpone the onset of diabetes in these mice. Thus, mercury-induced immune activation can counter-regulate the Th1 cell-mediated autoimmune responses and confer a partial protection against autoimmune diabetes in NOD mice.