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Innere Medizin 1. November 2006

The mammalian host response to borrelia infection

Tick-borne relapsing fever (RF) and Lyme disease (LD) are spirochetal infections of humans caused by different Borrelia species in endemic areas throughout the world. Our laboratory is studying the response of mammalian hosts to borrelia infection in RF and LD. For this, we use mice and non-human primates infected with B. burgdorferi sensu stricto strain N40 (N40) and the Oz1 strain of Borrelia turicatae (Bt), agents of LD and RF in North America, respectively. Our results have revealed that outbred non-human primates are significantly less susceptible than outbred mice to persistent infection with N40. In contrast, the majority of mice inoculated with the RF agent B. turicatae clear the infection, with the notable exception of residual brain or blood infection in up to 25% of cases. Little if any tissue injury occurs in immunocompetent animals with either LD or RF. In contrast, impairment of specific antibody production results in significant tissue injury, most notably in the heart, in both LD and RF. The inflammatory infiltrate is rich in plasma cells, activated macrophages and T cells, and there is significant deposition of antibody and complement, including membrane attack complex, in inflamed tissues and spirochetes. Significant loss of cardiomyocytes with apoptosis and caspase activation was observed in the heart of immunosuppressed non-human primates infected with N40 and in B cell-deficient mice infected with B. turicatae. Unlike the heart, the brain of B cell-deficient mice infected with B. turicatae showed prominent microglial activation but no detectable tissue injury. Tissues from immunosuppressed non-human primates infected with N40 produce large amounts of immunoglobulin and the B cell chemokine CXCL13, both of which significantly correlate with the spirochetal load. We conclude that the main response of mammalian hosts in LD and RF is the production of specific antibody to clear the infection. Failure of this response leads to persistent infection, which can lead to tissue injury, most notably in the heart.

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