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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1993 Nov 1;90(21):10198-201.

On the role of macrophages in anthrax.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115.


Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, produces systemic shock and death in susceptible animals, primarily through the action of its lethal toxin. This toxin, at high concentrations, induces lysis of macrophages in vitro but shows little or no effect on other cells. We found that when mice were specifically depleted of macrophages by silica injections, they became resistant to the toxin. Sensitivity could be restored by coinjection of toxin-sensitive cultured macrophages (RAW 264.7 cells) but not by coinjection of other cell lines tested. These results implied that macrophages mediate the action of lethal toxin in vivo and led us to investigate their role in death of the mammalian host. Sublytic concentrations of lethal toxin, orders of magnitude lower than those required to induce lysis of RAW 264.7 cells, were found to induce these cells to express interleukin 1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor in vitro. Passive immunization against IL-1 or injection of an IL-1 receptor antagonist protected mice from toxin challenge, whereas anti-tumor necrosis factor provided little, if any, protection. These results imply that systemic shock and death from anthrax result primarily from the effects of high levels of cytokines, principally IL-1, produced by macrophages that have been stimulated by the anthrax lethal toxin.

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