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J Inflamm (Lond). 2016 Mar 11;13:8. doi: 10.1186/s12950-016-0117-4. eCollection 2016.

Mycobacterium leprae alters classical activation of human monocytes in vitro.

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Public Health Research Institute, New Jersey Medical School, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ USA.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, WA USA.



Macrophages play a central role in the pathogenesis of leprosy, caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The polarized clinical presentations in leprosy are associated with differential immune activation. In tuberculoid leprosy, macrophages show a classical activation phenotype (M1), while macrophages in lepromatous disease display characteristics of alternative activation (M2). Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccination, which protects against leprosy, can promote sustained changes in monocyte response to unrelated pathogens and may preferentially direct monocytes towards an M1 protective phenotype. We previously reported that M. leprae can dampen the response of naïve human monocytes to a strong inducer of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as BCG. Here, we investigated the ability of the pathogen to alter the direction of macrophage polarization and the impact of BCG vaccination on the monocyte response to M. leprae.


We show that in vitro exposure of monocytes from healthy donors to M. leprae interferes with subsequent M1 polarization, indicated by lower levels of M1-associated cytokine/chemokines released and reduced expression of M1 cell surface markers. Exposure to M. leprae phenolic glycolipid (PGL) 1, instead of whole bacteria, demonstrated a similar effect on M1 cytokine/chemokine release. In addition, we found that monocytes from 10-week old BCG-vaccinated infants released higher levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-α and IL-1β in response to M. leprae compared to those from unvaccinated infants.


Exposure to M. leprae has an inhibitory effect on M1 macrophage polarization, likely mediated through PGL-1. By directing monocyte/macrophages preferentially towards M1 activation, BCG vaccination may render the cells more refractory to the inhibitory effects of subsequent M. leprae infection.


BCG vaccination; Cytokine; Innate immunity; Leprosy; Macrophage; Mycobacterium leprae; Polarization

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