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Am J Pathol. 2010 Aug;177(2):766-76. doi: 10.2353/ajpath.2010.091110. Epub 2010 Jul 8.

Natural killer cells promote tissue injury and systemic inflammatory responses during fatal Ehrlichia-induced toxic shock-like syndrome.

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Department of Pathology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas, USA.


Human monocytotropic ehrlichiosis is caused by Ehrlichia chaffeensis, a Gram-negative bacterium lacking lipopolysaccharide. We have shown that fatal murine ehrlichiosis is associated with CD8(+)T cell-mediated tissue damage, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and interleukin (IL)-10 overproduction, and CD4(+)Th1 hyporesponsiveness. In this study, we examined the relative contributions of natural killer (NK) and NKT cells in Ehrlichia-induced toxic shock. Lethal ehrlichial infection in wild-type mice induced a decline in NKT cell numbers, and late expansion and migration of activated NK cells to the liver, a main infection site that coincided with development of hepatic injury. The spatial and temporal changes in NK and NKT cells in lethally infected mice correlated with higher NK cell cytotoxic activity, higher expression of cytotoxic molecules such as granzyme B, higher production of interferon-gamma and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, increased hepatic infiltration with CD8alphaCD11c(+) dendritic cells and CD8(+)T cells, decreased splenic CD4(+)T cells, increased serum concentrations of IL-12p40, IL-18, RANTES, and monocyte chemotactic protein-1, and elevated production of IL-18 by liver mononuclear cells compared with nonlethally infected mice. Depletion of NK cells prevented development of severe liver injury, decreased serum levels of interferon-gamma, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and IL-10, and enhanced bacterial elimination. These data indicate that NK cells promote immunopathology and defective anti-ehrlichial immunity, possibly via decreasing the protective immune response mediated by interferon-gamma producing CD4(+)Th1 and NKT cells.

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