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Annu Rev Immunol. 2002;20:581-620. Epub 2001 Oct 4.

Genetic dissection of immunity to mycobacteria: the human model.

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  • 1Laboratory of Human Genetics of Infectious Diseases, Université René Descartes-INSERM U550, Necker Medical School, 156 rue de Vaugirard, 75015 Paris, France. casanova@necker.fr

Abstract

Humans are exposed to a variety of environmental mycobacteria (EM), and most children are inoculated with live Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine. In addition, most of the world's population is occasionally exposed to human-borne mycobacterial species, which are less abundant but more virulent. Although rarely pathogenic, mildly virulent mycobacteria, including BCG and most EM, may cause a variety of clinical diseases. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, M. leprae, and EM M. ulcerans are more virulent, causing tuberculosis, leprosy, and Buruli ulcer, respectively. Remarkably, only a minority of individuals develop clinical disease, even if infected with virulent mycobacteria. The interindividual variability of clinical outcome is thought to result in part from variability in the human genes that control host defense. In this well-defined microbiological and clinical context, the principles of mouse immunology and the methods of human genetics can be combined to facilitate the genetic dissection of immunity to mycobacteria. The natural infections are unique to the human model, not being found in any of the animal models of experimental infection. We review current genetic knowledge concerning the simple and complex inheritance of predisposition to mycobacterial diseases in humans. Rare patients with Mendelian disorders have been found to be vulnerable to BCG, a few EM, and M. tuberculosis. Most cases of presumed Mendelian susceptibility to these and other mycobacterial species remain unexplained. In the general population leprosy and tuberculosis have been shown to be associated with certain human genetic polymorphisms and linked to certain chromosomal regions. The causal vulnerability genes themselves have yet to be identified and their pathogenic alleles immunologically validated. The studies carried out to date have been fruitful, initiating the genetic dissection of protective immunity against a variety of mycobacterial species in natural conditions of infection. The human model has potential uses beyond the study of mycobacterial infections and may well become a model of choice for the investigation of immunity to infectious agents.

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