Linking iodine with autoimmune thyroiditis

Noel R. Rose, Linda Rasooly, Ali M. Saboori, C. Lynne Burek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


A great deal of circumstantial evidence has linked iodine with the rising incidence of autoimmune thyroiditis in the United States. In our investigations, we have shown directly that T cells from humans with chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis proliferate in the presence of iodinated but not in the presence of noniodinated human thyroglobulin. Moreover, the proliferative response is restored when the thyroglobulin is iodinated artificially in vitro. Using a panel of monoclonal antibodies, we found evidence that the presence of iodine induces a number of stereochemical changes in the conformation of the molecule, resulting in the loss of some antigenic determinants and the appearance of others. One prominent determinant was associated with the iodine-containing amino acid thyroxine. Both the number and position of the iodine substituents determine the precise specificity of this epitope. A new model for the study of the role of iodine in inducing thyroid autoimmunity has become available in the form of the nonobese diabetic (NOD)-H2(h4) mouse. This animal develops autoimmune thyroiditis spontaneously but in relatively low prevalence. However, if iodine is added to the drinking water, the prevalence and severity of the thyroid lesions increase markedly. The immune response is specific for thyroglobulin, both in terms of the antibody response and T-cell proliferation. In fact, the appearance of lesions can be predicted by the presence of thyroglobulin-specific IgG2b antibody. The disease, moreover, can be transferred adoptively, using spleen cells from iodine-fed donors treated in vitro with iodinated thyroglobulin. The effects of iodine feeding are greater in conventional animals compared with those maintained under specific pathogen-free conditions. Based on T-cell proliferation, it appears that the NOD-H2(h4) strain of mice has innately a greater response to murine thyroglobulin than do other mouse strains and that the proliferation is increased even more by feeding iodine. We suggest, therefore, that the presence of iodine increases the autoantigenic potency of thyroglobulin, a major pathogenic antigen in the induction of autoimmune thyroiditis. This animal model provides a unique opportunity for investigating in detail the mechanisms by which an environmental agent can trigger a pathogenic autoimmune response in a susceptible host.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)749-752
Number of pages4
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue numberSUPPL. 5
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Autoimmune disease
  • Autoimmunity
  • Iodine
  • Thyroglobulin
  • Thyroiditis
  • Thyronine
  • Thyroxine
  • Tyrosine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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