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J Immunol. 2003 Nov 1;171(9):4672-9.

Silent cleanup of very early apoptotic cells by macrophages.

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  • 1Department of Biomolecular Science, Faculty of Science, Toho University, Funabashi, Chiba, Japan.


Apoptotic cells are phagocytosed as soon as they appear in vivo. In this study, we first determined precisely at what stage apoptotic cells are phagocytosed by macrophages, and then examined the subsequent cytokine production. Phagocytosis was confirmed by flow cytometry and confocal laser microscopy, whereas the subsequent response was examined by ELISA and RT-PCR for quantitative and semiquantitative measurement of the protein and mRNA levels of cytokines, respectively. Even the cell populations containing very early apoptotic cells, such as IL-2-dependent CTLL-2 cells cultured in the absence of IL-2 for 4 h and a murine leukemic cell line, P388 cells, treated with etoposide for 5 h, were phagocytosed by macrophages. Although the cell populations containing the very early apoptotic cells used in this study were FITC-Annexin V-negative and did not show a decrease in cell size as compared with untreated cells, they showed a very small increase in phosphatidylserine on the cell surface, as detected with Cy3-Annexin V, and a decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential, indicating that the cell populations had already started the apoptotic process. Phagocytosis of such populations containing very early apoptotic cells was inhibited by phospho-L-serine much more significantly than Arg-Gly-Asp-Ser. In addition, macrophages hardly produced either proinflammatory or anti-inflammatory cytokines after phagocytosis, thus being an almost null response. These results are contrary to the generally accepted concept that the phagocytosis of apoptotic cells leads to the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines, suggesting instead that cells starting to undergo apoptosis are quickly phagocytosed by macrophages without any inflammation in vivo.

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