press release, 09. July 2020

Unraveling the impact of environmental chemicals on the immune system of pregnant women and the health of their children

Pregnancy immunologist is the new Head of the UFZ Department of Environmental Immunology

Since July 1st, the UFZ Department of Environmental Immunology has a new Head: Prof. Ana Zenclussen. She was jointly appointed by the UFZ and the Medical Faculty of the University of Leipzig and holds the professorship "Pediatric 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.

Prof. Ana Claudia Zenclussen Photo: © André Künzelmann / UFZ
Prof. Ana Claudia Zenclussen
Photo: © André Künzelmann / UFZ

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 fetal hormones are able to confer immune cells a tolerant phenotype so that the fetus 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 fetus. On the contrary, there is a protective, immune response during pregnancy thanks to regulatory T cells that are specific to the fetal antigens, and protect the growing fetus from the mother’s immune response. "The placenta, a fetal 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 analyzes 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 fetus 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 fetal 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 a focus on both topics, Prof. Zenclussen perfectly complements the UFZ’s research portfolio on matters relating to pediatric environmental health and the variety of chemicals to which the environment and humans are exposed," says Prof. Rolf Altenburger, who heads the topic area Chemicals in the Environment at the UFZ. For many years, working groups at the UFZ have been dealing with the disease-influencing effects of environmental pollution on children’s health, including in mother-child cohort studies such as LINA, focusing on the prenatal and early postnatal phase of child development.

With the Medical Faculty at Leipzig University as a partner, the new Head of Department 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 Saxonian Incubator for Clinical Translation at the Leipzig University. "Leipzig is a highly attractive and particularly suitable location for research in the field of pediatric 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 got her venia legend in Immunology. In 2007, she accepted a Professorship for Experimental Gynecology and Obstetrics at the Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg. Since 1st July, Ana Claudia Zenclussen is Full Professor for "Paediatric Environmental Epidemiology/Immunology" with double affiliation UFZ/Medical Faculty, directing the Department of Environmental Immunology at UFZ and the "Perinatal Immunology" research group at the Medical Faculty.

Further information

Prof. Dr. Ana Zenclussen
Head of UFZ Department of Environmental Immunology

UFZ press office

Susanne Hufe
Phone: +49 341 235-1630

In the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), scientists conduct research into the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. Their areas of study cover water resources, ecosystems of the future, environmental technologies and biotechnologies, the effects of chemicals in the environment, modelling and social-scientific issues. The UFZ employs more than 1,100 staff at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the Federal Government, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research fields: Energy; Earth and Environment; Health; Key Technologies; Matter; and Aeronautics, Space and Transport. With some 39,000 employees in 19 research centres, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation.
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