Autoimmunity is thought to result from a combination of genetics, environmental triggers, and stochastic events. Environmental factors, such as chemicals, drugs or infectious agents, have been implicated in the expression of autoimmune disease, yet human studies are extremely limited in their ability to test isolated exposures to demonstrate causation or to assess pathogenic mechanisms. In this review we examine the research literature on the ability of chemical, physical and biological agents to induce and/or exacerbate autoimmunity in a variety of animal models. There is no single animal model capable of mimicking the features of human autoimmune disease, particularly as related to environmental exposures. An objective, therefore, was to assess the types of information that can be gleaned from the use of animal models, and how well that information can be used to translate back to human health. Our review notes the importance of genetic background to the types and severity of the autoimmune response following exposure to environmental factors, and emphasizes literature where animal model studies have led to increased confidence about environmental factors that affect expression of autoimmunity. A high level of confidence was reached if there were multiple studies from different laboratories confirming the same findings. Examples include mercury, pristane, and infection with Streptococcus or Coxsackie B virus. A second level of consensus identified those exposures likely to influence autoimmunity but requiring further confirmation. To fit into this category, there needed to be significant supporting data, perhaps by multiple studies from a single laboratory, or repetition of some but not all findings in multiple laboratories. Examples include silica, gold, TCE, TCDD, UV radiation, and Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus. With the caveat that researchers must keep in mind the limitations and appropriate applications of the various approaches, animal models are shown to be extremely valuable tools for studying the induction or exacerbation of autoimmunity by environmental conditions and exposures.
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