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Analysis of T-cell proliferation and cytokine secretion in the individuals exposed to arsenic

Over six million people in nine districts of West Bengal, India are exposed to very high levels of arsenic primarily through their drinking water. More than 300,000 people showed arsenic-induced skin lesions in these districts. This is regarded as the greatest arsenic calamity in the world. Chronic arsenicosis causes varied dermatological signs ranging from pigmentation changes, hyperkeratosis to non-melanocytic cancer of skin, and also malignancies in different internal organs. Higher incidences of opportunistic infections are found in the arsenic-exposed individuals, indicating that their immune systems may be impaired somehow. We have thus investigated the effect of arsenic on T-cell proliferation and cytokine secretion in 20 individuals with arsenic-induced skin lesions and compared the results with 18 arsenic-unexposed individuals. A marked dose-dependent suppression of Concanavalin A (Con A) induced T-cell proliferation was observed in the arsenic-exposed individuals compared with the unexposed (P < 0.001) individuals. This correlated with a significant decrease in the levels of secreted cytokines by the T cells (TNF-, IFN-, IL2, IL10, IL5, and IL4) in the exposed individuals (P < 0.001). Thus it can be inferred that arsenic exposure can cause immunosuppression in humans.