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QJM. 2010 Nov;103(11):847-63. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hcq113. Epub 2010 Jul 16.

Long-term persistence after acute Q fever of non-infective Coxiella burnetii cell components, including antigens.

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  • 1Q fever Research Group, Hanson Institute, Adelaide, South Australia.



Previous studies of inciting factors for a prolonged post-infection fatigue syndrome after Q fever (variously termed QFS or Q fever associated CFS/ME in the literature) showed that after the acute infection a high proportion of asymptomatic and QFS patients had Q fever antibody and also low levels in PBMC and bone marrow of Coxiella burnetii (C.b.) DNA with PCR assays directed against three different target sequences in different parts of the coxiella genome. Attempts to isolate a strain of C.b. in A/J mice, and cell culture from PCR positive PBMC and bone marrow were consistently negative. The detailed composition of the persisting coxiella residues remains to be defined.


To retest and provide detailed results on selected PCR positive samples from the Birmingham Q fever outbreak patients tested by a highly sensitive method to detect viable organisms and to determine the nature of the residual coxiella cell components.


Laboratory case study.


NOD/SCID mice were inoculated with samples from the 1989 Q fever outbreak in Birmingham and followed for evidence of infection and the presence of coxiella DNA and specific antigens in spleen and liver macrophages. A significant, unexpected finding of specific antigen was followed by assessment of its ability to provoke production of inflammatory and non-inflammatory cytokines in mice, in THP-1 human macrophage cell cultures and to induce inflammatory lesions in the skin of guinea pigs hyperimmunized against Q fever vaccine.


Culture of samples from 10 Birmingham Q fever patients in NOD/SCID mice, 12 years from infection did not yield viable Coxiella burnetii, as shown earlier. However complexes of material with coxiella antigens were found in mouse spleens in all cases but in significantly greater amounts in samples from those with post Q fever fatigue syndrome. The antigenic complexes [now designated 'immunomodulatory complexes' (IMC)] were shown to stimulate cytokine release in the mice and in the THP-1 macrophages and to provoke an inflammatory reaction on intradermal injection into the skin of Q fever hyperimmunized guinea pigs.


The study identifies a non-infective complex of C.b. antigens able to survive in the host and provoke aberrant humoral and cell medicated immunity responses - a possible pathogenic link between initial infection and a subsequent long-term post Q fever fatigue syndrome.

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