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Clin Infect Dis. 2007 Sep 15;45(6):723-31. Epub 2007 Aug 8.

Hypercytokinemia and hyperactivation of phospho-p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase in severe human influenza A virus infection.

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Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, People's Republic of China.



We postulate that hypercytokinemia plays a role in immunopathogenesis of severe human influenza.


We prospectively studied 39 consecutive patients who were hospitalized with severe influenza A virus infection. On laboratory confirmation of the diagnosis, paired acute-phase (obtained at hospital admission) and convalescent-phase (obtained >10 days after hospital admission) plasma samples were collected for assay of 11 cytokines and chemokines (interleukin [IL] 1 beta; IL-6; IL-10; IL-12p70; tumor necrosis factor alpha; IL-8; monokine induced by interferon [IFN]-gamma; IFN-inducible protein 10; monocyte chemoattractant protein 1; regulated upon activation, normal T cell-expressed and secreted; and IFN-gamma) using cytometric bead-array analysis and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Simultaneously, virus concentration in the acute-phase nasopharyngeal aspirate was determined using real-time quantitative reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. Intracellular signaling molecules regulating lymphocyte activation, phospho-p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase and phospho-extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase in CD4+ and CD8+ T lymphocytes were studied in the acute-phase samples using flow cytometric analysis and were compared with results for samples from healthy control subjects.


Statistically significant increases in plasma IL-6 (3.7-fold increase), IL-8 (2.6-fold increase), IFN-induced protein 10 (4.9-fold increase), and monokine induced by IFN-gamma (2.3-fold increase) concentrations were detected during acute illness (P < .01 for all, by Wilcoxon signed-rank test); the highest concentrations were observed on symptom days 3 and 4. Corresponding plasma cytokine and chemokine concentrations and nasopharyngeal viral loads showed statistically significant correlations (rho = 0.41, 0.49, 0.54, and 0.46, respectively; P < or = .01). Phospho-p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase expression in CD4+ lymphocytes was increased, correlating with cytokine concentrations (e.g., for IFN-induced protein 10, rho = 0.78; P < .01); phospho-extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase was suppressed. Advanced age and comorbidity were associated with aberrant IL-6, IL-8, and monokine induced by IFN-gamma responses (P < .05, by Mann-Whitney U test). An elevated IL-6 concentration was independently associated with prolonged hospitalization (hospitalization for >5 days; P = .02), adjusted for age, comorbidity, and virus load.


Hypercytokinemia (of proinflammatory and T helper 1 cytokines) is detected in severe influenza, correlating with clinical illness and virus concentration. Hyperactivation of phospho-p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (in T helper cells) is possibly involved. Early viral suppression may attenuate these potentially deleterious cytokine responses.

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