ISU Magazine

Volume 41 | Number 1 | Fall/Winter 2010

Jean Pfau

Dr. Jean Pfau displays test samples from her research studying the effects of asbestos exposure.

Photo by ISU Photographic Services


Asbestos Exposure and the Immune System

Fall 2010 Issue | By Andrew Taylor

Idaho State University's Jean Pfau, assistant professor of biological sciences, is working on two important grants to study the adverse health effects of asbestos exposure.

Her newest asbestos-related grant is a $191,962 U.S. National Institutes of Health grant she received last spring to explore the health effects of asbestos at the cellular level.

"We're trying to understand the way asbestos affects the immune system leading to systemic autoimmune disorders, such as lupus," Pfau said.

Understanding this, researchers may eventually be able to reduce the negative effects of asbestos exposure or better treat autoimmune diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have been found to occur more frequently in people who have been exposed to asbestos, particularly the type of asbestos produced from the vermiculite mines near Libby, Mont.

The grant will last two years and funds Pfau and three ISU undergraduate researchers.

Pfau and her colleagues will look at the possibility that glutamate amino acid is a signaling molecule in the immune system.

The cells that first encounter asbestos after exposure are white blood cells called macrophages. Pfau believes that macrophages may use glutamate to signal the immune system to react, driving the immune system. However, after exposure to asbestos, Pfau theorizes that the macrophages engage in mistaken signaling, causing the immune system to become overactive and produce excessive antibodies, creating diseases such as lupus - a disease that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack healthy cells and tissues.

She will also look at how different forms of asbestos affect the immune system. Building asbestos, for example, is not known to dramatically increase the risk of autoimmune disorders, but can increase cancer rates. Specific types of asbestos, such as those that are byproducts of mining activities, appear to be much more toxic to the immune system.

Pfau, who has finished several previous studies on asbestos, is also currently working on another grant she received last fall, working with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, the University of Montana, the Libby, Mont.-based Center for Asbestos Related Disease and a national scientific advisory group. This research project, known as the Libby Epidemiology Research Program, is supported by a grant of more than $4.8 million from the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pfau's part in this program will be comparing the production of blood serum antibodies among Libby residents who were exposed to asbestos only in their environment with antibodies seen in workers with historically long-term, heavy exposure to common commercial forms of asbestos.

Residents and workers in Libby, Mont., have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore for over nine decades.

Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have been found to occur more frequently in Libby than would normally be expected, and antibody levels to the body's own tissues are found in Libby residents more frequently and at higher concentrations. It is not known whether these outcomes are specific to the Libby asbestos or common to all asbestos exposures. The study should help determine how much asbestos exposure is necessary to cause autoimmune signs and symptoms.