Previous studies investigating the role of cytokines in the pathogenesis of leprosy have either been on only small numbers of patients or have not combined clinical and histological data. The INFIR Cohort study is a prospective study of 303 new multibacillary leprosy patients to identify risk factors for reaction and nerve damage. This study characterised the cellular infiltrate in skin and nerve biopsies using light microscopic and immunohistochemical techniques to identify any association of cytokine markers, nerve and cell markers with leprosy reactions.
TNF-α, TGF-β and iNOS protein in skin and nerve biopsies were detected using monoclonal antibody detection immunohistochemistry techniques in 299 skin biopsies and 68 nerve biopsies taken from patients at recruitment. The tissues were stained with hematoxylin and eosin, modified Fite Faraco, CD68 macrophage cell marker and S100.
Histological analysis of the biopsies showed that 43% had borderline tuberculoid (BT) leprosy, 27% borderline lepromatous leprosy, 9% lepromatous leprosy, 13% indeterminate leprosy types and 7% had no inflammation. Forty-six percent had histological evidence of a Type 1 Reaction (T1R) and 10% of Erythema Nodosum Leprosum. TNF-α was detected in 78% of skin biopsies (181/232), iNOS in 78% and TGF-β in 94%. All three molecules were detected at higher levels in patients with BT leprosy. TNF-α was localised within macrophages and epithelioid cells in the granuloma, in the epidermis and in dermal nerves in a few cases. TNF-α, iNOS and TGF-β were all significantly associated with T1R (p<0.001). Sixty-eight nerve biopsies were analysed. CD68, TNF-α and iNOS staining were detectable in 88%, 38% and 28% of the biopsies respectively. The three cytokines TNF-α, iNOS and TGF-β detected by immunohistochemistry showed a significant association with the presence of skin reaction. This study is the first to demonstrate an association of iNOS and TGF-β with T1R.
Leprosy affects skin and peripheral nerves. Although we have effective antibiotics to treat the mycobacterial infection, a key part of the disease process is the accompanying inflammation. This can worsen after starting antibacterial treatment with episodes of immune mediated inflammation, so called ‘reactions’. These reactions are associated with worsening of the nerve damage. We recruited a cohort of 303 newly diagnosed leprosy patients in North India with the aim of understanding and defining the pathological processes better. We took skin and nerve biopsies from patients and examined them to define which molecules and mediators of inflammation were present. We found high levels of the cytokines Tumour Necrosis Factor alpha, Transforming Growth Factor beta and inducible Nitric Oxide Synthase in biopsies from patients with reactions. We also found high levels of bacteria and inflammation in the nerves. These experiments tell us that we need to determine which other molecules are present and to explore ways of switching off the production of these pro-inflammatory molecules.