Using human brain microvascular endothelial cells (HBMECs) as an in vitro model for how African trypanosomes cross the human blood-brain barrier (BBB) we recently reported that the parasites cross the BBB by generating calcium activation signals in HBMECs through the activity of parasite cysteine proteases, particularly cathepsin L (brucipain). In the current study, we examined the possible role of a class of protease stimulated HBMEC G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) known as protease activated receptors (PARs) that might be implicated in calcium signaling by African trypanosomes.
Using RNA interference (RNAi) we found that in vitro PAR-2 gene (F2RL1) expression in HBMEC monolayers could be reduced by over 95%. We also found that the ability of Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense to cross F2RL1-silenced HBMEC monolayers was reduced (39%–49%) and that HBMECs silenced for F2RL1 maintained control levels of barrier function in the presence of the parasite. Consistent with the role of PAR-2, we found that HBMEC barrier function was also maintained after blockade of Gαq with Pasteurella multocida toxin (PMT). PAR-2 signaling has been shown in other systems to have neuroinflammatory and neuroprotective roles and our data implicate a role for proteases (i.e. brucipain) and PAR-2 in African trypanosome/HBMEC interactions. Using gene-profiling methods to interrogate candidate HBMEC pathways specifically triggered by brucipain, several pathways that potentially link some pathophysiologic processes associated with CNS HAT were identified.
Together, the data support a role, in part, for GPCRs as molecular targets for parasite proteases that lead to the activation of Gαq-mediated calcium signaling. The consequence of these events is predicted to be increased permeability of the BBB to parasite transmigration and the initiation of neuroinflammation, events precursory to CNS disease.
Human African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, occurs when single-cell trypanosome protozoan parasites spread from the blood to brain over the blood-brain barrier (BBB). This barrier is composed of brain microvascular endothelial cells (BMECs) especially designed to keep pathogens out. Safe drugs for treating sleeping sickness are lacking and alternative treatments are urgently required. Using our human BMEC BBB model, we previously found that a parasite protease, brucipain, induced calcium activation signals that allowed this barrier to open up to parasite crossing. Because human BMECs express protease-activated receptors (PARs) that trigger calcium signals in BMECs, we hypothesized a functional link between parasite brucipain and BMEC PARs. Utilizing RNA interference to block the production of one type of PAR called PAR-2, we hindered the ability of trypanosomes to both open up and cross human BMECs. Using gene-profiling methods to interrogate candidate BMEC pathways specifically triggered by brucipain, several pathways that potentially link brain inflammatory processes were identified, a finding congruent with the known role of PAR-2 as a mediator of inflammation. Overall, our data support a role for brucipain and BMEC PARs in trypanosome BBB transmigration, and as potential triggers for brain inflammation associated with the disease.