Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are essential in host defense against pathogens by virtue of their capacity to detect microbes and initiate the immune response. TLR2 is seen as the most important receptor for gram-positive bacteria, while TLR4 is regarded as the gram-negative TLR. Melioidosis is a severe infection caused by the gram-negative bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, that is endemic in Southeast Asia. We aimed to characterize the expression and function of TLRs in septic melioidosis.
Methods and Findings
Patient studies: 34 patients with melioidosis demonstrated increased expression of CD14, TLR1, TLR2, and TLR4 on the cell surfaces of monocytes and granulocytes, and increased CD14, TLR1, TLR2, TLR4, LY96 (also known as MD-2), TLR5, and TLR10 mRNA levels in purified monocytes and granulocytes when compared with healthy controls. In vitro experiments: Whole-blood and alveolar macrophages obtained from TLR2 and TLR4 knockout (KO) mice were less responsive to B. pseudomallei in vitro, whereas in the reverse experiment, transfection of HEK293 cells with either TLR2 or TLR4 rendered these cells responsive to this bacterium. In addition, the lipopolysaccharide (LPS) of B. pseudomallei signals through TLR2 and not through TLR4. Mouse studies: Surprisingly, TLR4 KO mice were indistinguishable from wild-type mice with respect to bacterial outgrowth and survival in experimentally induced melioidosis. In contrast, TLR2 KO mice displayed a markedly improved host defenses as reflected by a strong survival advantage together with decreased bacterial loads, reduced lung inflammation, and less distant-organ injury.
Patients with melioidosis displayed an up-regulation of multiple TLRs in peripheral blood monocytes and granulocytes. Although both TLR2 and TLR4 contribute to cellular responsiveness to B. pseudomallei in vitro, TLR2 detects the LPS of B. pseudomallei, and only TLR2 impacts on the immune response of the intact host in vivo. Inhibition of TLR2 may be a novel treatment strategy in melioidosis.
Willem Wiersinga and colleagues find up-regulation of multiple Toll-like receptors (TLRs) in peripheral blood cells of patients with melioidosis. However, only TLR2 had an effect on the immune response in a mouse model.
Melioidosis is a severe tropical infection caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei. This soil-dwelling pathogen (disease-causing organism) enters the body through cuts, by swallowed contaminated water, or by inhaled contaminated dust. Here, it can cause a severe lung infection or spread into the blood stream and around the body, where it causes widespread inflammation (sepsis) and organ failure. Untreated septic melioidosis is usually fatal. Even with antibiotic therapy, half the people who develop it in Thailand (a hot spot for melioidosis) die. B. pseudomallei is a “gram-negative” bacterium. That is, it is surrounded by a membrane that stops it taking up a stain used to detect bacteria. This membrane contains a molecule called lipopolysaccharide (LPS). Proteins on immune system cells called Toll-like receptors (TLRs), of which there are many, recognize LPS and other surface molecules common to different pathogens and tell the cells to make cytokines. These cytokines stimulate the immune system to kill the pathogen but also cause inflammation, the underlying problem in septic melioidosis and other forms of sepsis. In other words, TLRs are two-edged swords—they provide an essential first-line defense against pathogens, but cause life-threatening inflammation if overstimulated.
Why Was This Study Done?
It isn't known which TLRs are involved in melioidosis. TLR4 normally detects LPS, but the surface of B. pseudomallei also carries molecules that interact with TLR2. Understanding how B. pseudomallei interacts with TLRs might suggest new, more effective ways to treat septic melioidosis. Better remedies for this disease are badly needed because, as well as the infections it causes in the community, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified B. pseudomallei as a potential bioterrorism agent. In this study, the researchers have characterized the expression and function of TLRs in septic melioidosis using human, in vitro (test tube), and animal approaches.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers isolated monocytes and granulocytes (immune system cells involved in first-line defenses against pathogens) from patients with melioidosis and from healthy people. The patients' cells made more TLR1, TLR2, TLR4, and CD14 (a protein that enhances the activation of immune system cells by LPS) than those of the healthy controls and more of the mRNAs encoding several other TLRs. Next, the researchers tested the ability of heat-killed B. pseudomallei to induce the release of TNFα (a cytokine produced in response to TLR signaling) from macrophages (immune system cells that swallow up pathogens) isolated from wild-type mice and from mice lacking TLR2 or TLR4. Macrophages isolated from wild-type mice made more TNFα than those from TLR2- or TLR4-deficient mice. In addition, a human kidney cell line engineered to express CD14/TLR2 or CD14/TLR4 but not the parent cell line released IL8 (another cytokine) when stimulated with heat-killed B. pseudomallei. Other experiments in these human cell lines showed that LPS purified from B. pseudomallei signals through TLR2 but not through TLR4. Finally, the researchers tested the ability of TLR2- and TLR4-deficient mice to survive after infection with live B. pseudomallei. Compared with TLR4-deficient or wild-type mice, the TLR2-deficient mice had a strong survival advantage, a lower bacterial load, reduced lung inflammation, and less organ damage.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that people with melioidosis have increased expression of several TLRs, any one of which might cause the sepsis associated with B. pseudomallei infection. The in vitro findings indicate that TLR2 and TLR4 both contribute to the responsiveness of immune cells to B. pseudomallei in test tubes, but that only TLR2 detects the LPS of this bacterium. This unexpected result—TLR4 normally responds to LPS—might indicate that there is something unique about the LPS of B. pseudomallei. Finally, the survival of TLR2-deficient mice after infection with B. pseudomallei suggests that TLR2-mediated dysregulation of the immune system in response to invasive B. pseudomallei might cause septic melioidosis. Although these results need confirming in people, they suggest that inhibition of TLR2 in combination with antibiotic therapy might improve outcomes for people with melioidosis.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040248.
Information is available from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on melioidosis (in English and Spanish)
The UK Health Protection Agency provides information for the public and health professionals on melioidosis
Wikipedia has pages on melioidosis and on Toll-like receptors (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia contains a page on sepsis (in English and Spanish)