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Reviews on environmental health

Recent advances in understanding the biomolecular basis of chronic beryllium disease: a review.


PMID 19658317

Abstract

In this review we summarize the work conducted over the past decade that has advanced our knowledge of pulmonary diseases associated with exposure to beryllium that has provided a molecular-based understanding of the chemistry, immunopathology, and immunogenetics of beryllium toxicity. Beryllium is a strong and lightweight metal that generates and reflects neutrons, resists corrosion, is transparent to X-rays, and conducts electricity. Beryllium is one of the most toxic elements on the periodic table, eliciting in susceptible humans (a) an allergic immune response known as beryllium sensitization (BeS); (b) acute beryllium disease, an acutely toxic, pneumonitis-like lung condition resulting from exposure to high beryllium concentrations that are rarely seen in modern industry; and (c) chronic beryllium disease (CBD) following either high or very low levels of exposure. Because of its exceptional strength, stability, and heat-absorbing capability, beryllium is used in many important technologies in the modern world. In the early 1940s, beryllium was recognized as posing an occupational hazard in manufacturing and production settings. Although acute beryllium disease is now rare, beryllium is an insidious poison with a latent toxicity and the risk of developing CBD persists. Chronic beryllium disease-a systemic granulomatous lung disorder caused by a specific delayed immune response to beryllium within a few months to several decades after exposure-has been called the "unrecognized epidemic". Although not a disease in itself, BeS, the innate immune response to beryllium identified by an abnormal beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test result, is a population-based predictor of CBD. Genetic susceptibility to CBD is associated with alleles of the major histocompatibility gene, human leukocyte antigen DP (HLA-DP) containing glutamic acid at the 69th position of the beta chain (HLA-DPbeta-E69). Other genes are likely to be involved in the disease process, and research on this issue is in progress. The current Occupational Safety & Health Administration permissible exposure limit of 2 microg/m3 has failed to protect workers from BeS/CBD. As a safe exposure limit that will not lead to BeS or CBD has not yet been determined, the realization that the risk of CBD persists has led to a renaissance in research on the effects of the metal on human health. Current data support further reductions in exposure levels to help minimize the incidence of CBD. Steps that would directly impact both the power of epidemiologic studies and the cost of surveillance would be to develop and validate improved screening and diagnostic tests, and to identify more genetic factors that affect either sensitization or disease process. The major focus of this review is the recent research on the cellular and molecular basis of beryllium sensitization and disease, using a multidisciplinary approach of bioinorganic chemistry and immunology. First we present a historical background of beryllium exposure and disease, followed by occurrence of beryllium in the environment, toxicokinetics, biological effects, beryllium lung disease, and other human health effects.

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