The Mycobacterium bovis Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is given to >120 million infants each year worldwide. Most studies investigating the immune response to BCG have focused on adaptive immunity. However the importance of TCR-gamma/delta (γδ) T cells and NK cells in the mycobacterial-specific immune response is of increasing interest.
Participants in four age-groups were BCG-immunized. Ten weeks later, in vitro BCG-stimulated blood was analyzed for NK and T cell markers, and intracellular IFNgamma (IFNγ) by flow cytometry. Total functional IFNγ response was calculated using integrated median fluorescence intensity (iMFI).
In infants and children, CD4 and CD4-CD8- (double-negative (DN)) T cells were the main IFNγ-expressing cells representing 43-56% and 27-37% of total CD3+ IFNγ+ T cells respectively. The iMFI was higher in DN T cells compared to CD4 T cells in all age groups, with the greatest differences seen in infants immunized at birth (p=0.002) or 2 months of age (p<0.0001). When NK cells were included in the analysis, they accounted for the majority of total IFNγ-expressing cells and, together with DN Vδ2 γδ T cells, had the highest iMFI in infants immunized at birth or 2 months of age.
In addition to CD4 T cells, NK cells and DN T cells, including Vδ2 γδ T cells, are the key populations producing IFNγ in response to BCG immunization in infants and children. This suggests that innate immunity and unconventional T cells play a greater role in the mycobacterial immune response than previously recognized and should be considered in the design and assessment of novel tuberculosis vaccines.