How Environmental Chemicals Affect the Immune System of Pregnant Women and the Health of Their

Ana Claudia Zenclussen. Photo: André Künzelmann, UFZ

Ana Claudia Zenclussen. Photo: André Künzelmann, UFZ

On 1 July, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the Faculty of Medicine at Leipzig University jointly appointed Professor Ana Zenclussen to the professorship Paediatric Environmental Epidemiology/Immunology. She previously held the Professorship for Experimental Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg. Ana Zenclussen’s research focuses on reproductive immunology, hormonal modulation of immune cells as well as the effects of environmental chemicals on maternal and foetal health and the underlying mechanisms.


In Magdeburg and previously at the Charité university hospital in Berlin - where Ana Zenclussen led a research group at the Institute of Medical Immunology - she focused on cellular immune mechanisms in pregnant mothers. Her team discovered, for example, that regulatory T cells, which are actually responsible for self-tolerance in the body, are crucial players in establishing and maintaining pregnancy tolerance. Interestingly, maternal and foetal hormones are able to confer immune cells a tolerant phenotype so that the foetus is not rejected. “The immune system is actually designed to reject anything foreign such as germs, bacteria or foreign cells,” explains Ana Zenclussen. During pregnancy, however, the maternal immune system does not react harmfully to the developing immunologically semi-foreign foetus. On the contrary, there is a protective, immune response during pregnancy thanks to regulatory T cells that are specific to the foetal antigens, and protect the growing foetus from the mother’s immune response. “The placenta, a foetal tissue, produces messenger substances such as the hormone hCG, which influences the T cells and thus controls its own tolerance.” However, hormonal mechanisms can be disrupted by environmental chemicals such as the plasticiser bisphenol A - with as yet unclear long-term consequences. What happens, for example, when pregnant women come into contact with environmental chemicals? How do environmental chemicals affect the mother’s immune response? What are the long-term consequences for the foetus and then later for children and adolescents? These are just some of the questions that the Department of Environmental Immunology aims to answer using a variety of approaches.

Ana Zenclussen’s research also focuses on cells of the innate immune system, such as macrophages or mast cells. She analyses how these cells influence important tissue processes such as the transformation of uterine spiral arteries during pregnancy. Her team was able to demonstrate that mast cells are crucial for supplying the foetus with maternal blood by controlling the necessary changes in the spiral arteries. However, this process can also be disturbed by environmental chemicals, and thus posing a threat to foetal growth and well-being that in turn can have long-term consequences into adulthood. “If we want to understand how environmental factors affect the health of our children, we need to find out how they affect important processes during pregnancy,” she says.

With the Faculty of Medicine at Leipzig University as a partner, the new department head also plans to develop concepts for new long-term mother-child cohorts focusing on new immunological issues. “We are fortunate that such ongoing studies can be carried out at the UFZ,” says Ana Zenclussen. Part of her research group will undertake research at the UFZ, the other at the Saxon Incubator for Clinical Translation at Leipzig University. “Leipzig is a highly attractive and particularly suitable location for research in the field of paediatric environmental health, because in addition to the UFZ, the University and the University Hospital, Leipzig is home to other world-class leading research institutions like the Max Planck Society and the Fraunhofer Society.“

Ana Claudia Zenclussen was born in 1971 in Esperanza, Argentina. After studying Biochemistry at the National University of Litoral, Santa Fe, she earned her doctorate in Immunology at the University of Buenos Aires in 2001. She then went to the Humboldt University of Berlin as a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, where she conducted research on stress and high blood pressure in pregnancy (pre-eclampsia) until March 2003. Afterwards, she was head of a research group at the Institute for Medical Immunology at the Charité Medical University where she obtained her venia legendi in Immunology. In 2007, she accepted a Professorship for Experimental Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg. Since 1 July, Ana Claudia Zenclussen has been Full Professor for “Paediatric Environmental Epidemiology/Immunology” with double affiliation UFZ / Faculty of Medicine, directing the Department of Environmental Immunology at UFZ and the “Perinatal Immunology” research group at the Faculty of Medicine.

Susann Huster


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