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PLoS Pathog. 2011 May;7(5):e1002063. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002063. Epub 2011 May 26.

Suboptimal activation of antigen-specific CD4+ effector cells enables persistence of M. tuberculosis in vivo.

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Department of Pathology, New York University School of Medicine, New York City, New York, United States of America.


Adaptive immunity to Mycobacterium tuberculosis controls progressive bacterial growth and disease but does not eradicate infection. Among CD4+ T cells in the lungs of M. tuberculosis-infected mice, we observed that few produced IFN-γ without ex vivo restimulation. Therefore, we hypothesized that one mechanism whereby M. tuberculosis avoids elimination is by limiting activation of CD4+ effector T cells at the site of infection in the lungs. To test this hypothesis, we adoptively transferred Th1-polarized CD4+ effector T cells specific for M. tuberculosis Ag85B peptide 25 (P25TCRTh1 cells), which trafficked to the lungs of infected mice and exhibited antigen-dependent IFN-γ production. During the early phase of infection, ∼10% of P25TCRTh1 cells produced IFN-γ in vivo; this declined to <1% as infection progressed to chronic phase. Bacterial downregulation of fbpB (encoding Ag85B) contributed to the decrease in effector T cell activation in the lungs, as a strain of M. tuberculosis engineered to express fbpB in the chronic phase stimulated P25TCRTh1 effector cells at higher frequencies in vivo, and this resulted in CD4+ T cell-dependent reduction of lung bacterial burdens and prolonged survival of mice. Administration of synthetic peptide 25 alone also increased activation of endogenous antigen-specific effector cells and reduced the bacterial burden in the lungs without apparent host toxicity. These results indicate that CD4+ effector T cells are activated at suboptimal frequencies in tuberculosis, and that increasing effector T cell activation in the lungs by providing one or more epitope peptides may be a successful strategy for TB therapy.

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