Imiquimod, a topical immune response modifier, induces migration of Langerhans cells

J Invest Dermatol. 2000 Jan;114(1):135-41. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1747.2000.00833.x.


Langerhans cells are bone marrow derived dendritic cells that represent the major antigen-presenting cells in the skin. Langerhans cells take up and process antigen within the epidermis and present processed antigen to T lymphocyte in the regional lymph nodes and thus form an integral part of the cutaneous immune response. The cutaneous immune response can be modified by a number of pharmacologic agents, including corticosteroids, cyclosporine, and retinoids as well as physical agents, such as ultraviolet light. For the most part these agents act by suppressing immune function. A topical immune response modifier, imiquimod has been shown to enhance the cutaneous immune response. Imiquimod has anti-viral and anti-tumor effects in animal models and has been approved for the topical treatment of external genital and perianal warts in humans. The biologic activity of imiquimod in part is due to its effect as a cytokine inducer. Preliminary data suggested that imiquimod could have an effect on Langerhans cells. In order to clarify this effect on Langerhans cells, we examined Langerhans cell morphology and migration in imiquimod-treated skin. The density of Ia + cells decreased 2 d after treatment, falling to approximately 43% by day 10. The Ia positive in cells remaining in the skin appeared larger and more dendritic suggesting an activated state. ATPase staining of epidermal sheet confirmed the decreased number of Langerhans cells. To clarify status of Langerhans cells, the activation of B7 was examined. Activation of B7-1 or B7-2 was not detected. Imiquimod, however, did enhance Langerhans cell migration from skin to draining lymph nodes. This enhanced Langerhans cell migration was also associated with an enhanced allergic contact hypersensitivity. These results suggest that the mechanism of modulation of immune response by imiquimod is in part due to effects on Langerhans cells.

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphatases / metabolism
  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / pharmacology*
  • Administration, Topical
  • Aminoquinolines / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Antibody Formation / drug effects
  • Cell Count / drug effects
  • Cell Movement / drug effects
  • Cytokines / genetics
  • Dermatitis, Contact / physiopathology
  • Epidermal Cells
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II / analysis
  • Imiquimod
  • Langerhans Cells / cytology
  • Langerhans Cells / drug effects*
  • Langerhans Cells / enzymology
  • Langerhans Cells / immunology
  • Langerhans Cells / physiology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Up-Regulation


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Aminoquinolines
  • Cytokines
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Adenosine Triphosphatases
  • Imiquimod