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PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e26050. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026050. Epub 2011 Oct 13.

Cytokine response patterns in severe pandemic 2009 H1N1 and seasonal influenza among hospitalized adults.

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  • 1Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, Faculty of Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region, People's Republic of China.



Studying cytokine/chemokine responses in severe influenza infections caused by different virus subtypes may improve understanding on pathogenesis.


Adults hospitalized for laboratory-confirmed seasonal and pandemic 2009 A/H1N1 (pH1N1) influenza were studied. Plasma concentrations of 13 cytokines/chemokines were measured at presentation and then serially, using cytometric-bead-array with flow-cytometry and ELISA. PBMCs from influenza patients were studied for cytokine/chemokine expression using ex-vivo culture (Whole Blood Assay,±PHA/LPS stimulation). Clinical variables were prospectively recorded and analyzed.


63 pH1N1 and 53 seasonal influenza patients were studied. pH1N1 patients were younger (mean±S.D. 42.8±19.2 vs 70.5±16.7 years), and fewer had comorbidities. Respiratory/cardiovascular complications were common in both groups (71.4% vs 81.1%), although severe pneumonia with hypoxemia (54.0% vs 28.3%) and ICU admissions (25.4% vs 1.9%) were more frequent with pH1N1. Hyperactivation of the proinflammatory cytokines IL-6, CXCL8/IL-8, CCL2/MCP-1 and sTNFR-1 was found in pH1N1 pneumonia (2-15 times normal) and in complicated seasonal influenza, but not in milder pH1N1 infections. The adaptive-immunity (Th1/Th17)-related CXCL10/IP-10, CXCL9/MIG and IL-17A however, were markedly suppressed in severe pH1N1 pneumonia (2-27 times lower than seasonal influenza; P-values<0.01). This pattern was further confirmed with serial measurements. Hypercytokinemia tended to be sustained in pH1N1 pneumonia, associated with a slower viral clearance [PCR-negativity: day 3-4, 55% vs 85%; day 6-7, 67% vs 100%]. Elevated proinflammatory cytokines, particularly IL-6, predicted ICU admission (adjusted OR 12.6, 95%CI 2.6-61.5, per log(10)unit increase; P = 0.002), and correlated with fever, tachypnoea, deoxygenation, and length-of-stay (Spearman's rho, P-values<0.01) in influenza infections. PBMCs in seasonal influenza patients were activated and expressed cytokines ex vivo (e.g. IL-6, CXCL8/IL-8, CCL2/MCP-1, CXCL10/IP-10, CXCL9/MIG); their 'responsiveness' to stimuli was shown to change dynamically during the illness course.


A hyperactivated proinflammatory, but suppressed adaptive-immunity (Th1/Th17)-related cytokine response pattern was found in severe pH1N1 pneumonia, different from seasonal influenza. Cytokine/immune-dysregulation may be important in its pathogenesis.

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