Interplay of human macrophages and Mycobacterium tuberculosis phenotypes

Abstract: Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) is the pathogen causing tuberculosis (TB), a disease most often affecting the lung. 1.5 million people die annually due to TB, mainly in low-income countries. Usually considered a disease of the poor, also developed nations recently put TB back on their agenda, fueled by the HIV epidemic and the global emergence of drug-resistant Mtb strains. HIV-coinfection is a predisposing factor for TB, and infection with multi-drug resistant and extremely drug resistant strains significantly impedes and lengthens antibiotic treatment, and increases fatality. Mtb is transmitted from a sick individual via coughing, and resident macrophages are the first cells to encounter the bacterium upon inhalation. These cells phagocytose intruders and subject them to a range of destructive mechanisms, aiming at killing pathogens and protecting the host. Mtb, however, has evolved to cope with host pressures, and has developed mechanisms to submerge macrophage defenses. Among these, inhibition of phagosomal maturation and adaptation to the intracellular environment are important features. Mtb profoundly alters its phenotype inside host cells, characterized by altered metabolism and slower growth. These adaptations contribute to the ability of Mtb to remain dormant inside a host during latent TB infection, a state that can last for decades. According to recent estimates, one third of the world’s population is latently infected with Mtb, which represents a huge reservoir for active TB disease. Mtb is also intrinsically tolerant to many antibiotics, and adaptation to host pressures enhances tolerance to first-line TB drugs. Therefore, TB antibiotic therapy takes 6 to 9 months, and current treatment regimens involve a combination of several antibiotics. Patient noncompliance due to therapeutic side effects as well as insufficient penetration of drugs into TB lesions are reasons for treatment failure and can lead to the rise of drug-resistant populations. In view of the global spread of drug-resistant strains, new antibiotics and treatment strategies are urgently needed.In this thesis, we studied the interplay of the primary host cell of Mtb, human macrophages, and different Mtb phenotypes. A low-burden infection resulted in restriction of Mtb replication via phagolysosomal effectors and the maintenance of an inactive Mtb phenotype reminiscent of dormant bacteria. Macrophages remained viable for up to 14 days, and profiling of secreted cytokines mirrored a silent infection. On the contrary, higher bacterial numbers inside macrophages could not be controlled by phagolysosomal functions, and intracellular Mtb shifted their phenotype towards active replication. Although slowed mycobacterial replication is believed to render Mtb tolerant to antibiotics, we did not observe such an effect. Mtb-induced macrophage cell death is dependent on ESAT6, a small mycobacterial virulence factor involved in host cell necrosis and the spread of the pathogen. Although well-studied, the fate of ESAT6 inside infected macrophages has been enigmatic. Cultivation of Mtb is commonly carried out in broth containing detergent to avoid aggregation of bacilli due to their waxy cell wall. Altering cultivation conditions revealed the presence of a mycobacterial capsule, and ESAT6 situated on the mycobacterial surface. Infection of macrophages with this encapsulated Mtb phenotype resulted in rapid ESAT6-dependent host cell death, and ESAT6 staining was lost as bacilli were ingested by macrophages. These observations could reflect the earlier reported integration of ESAT6 into membranes followed by membrane rupture and host cell death.In conclusion, the work presented in this thesis shows that the phenotype of Mtb has a significant impact on the struggle between the pathogen and human macrophages. Taking the bacterial phenotype into account can lead to the development of drugs active against altered bacterial populations that are not targeted by conventional antibiotics. Furthermore, deeper knowledge on Mtb virulence factors can inform the development of virulence blockers, a new class of antibiotics with great therapeutic potential.

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