Background: Syphilis is caused by the spirochetal pathogen Treponema pallidum. The local and systemic cellular immune responses elicited by the bacterium have not been well studied in humans.
Methods: We used multiparameter flow cytometry to characterize leukocyte immunophenotypes in skin and peripheral blood from 23 patients with secondary syphilis and 5 healthy control subjects recruited in Cali, Colombia. Dermal leukocytes were obtained from fluid aspirated from epidermal suction blisters raised over secondary syphilis skin lesions.
Results: Compared with peripheral blood (PB), blister fluids (BFs) were enriched for CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells, activated monocytes/macrophages, and CD11c(+) monocytoid and CD11c(-) plasmacytoid dendritic cells (mDCs and pDCs, respectively). Nearly all mDCs in BFs expressed the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) coreceptors CCR5 and DC-specific intercellular adhesion molecule 3-grabbing nonintegrin (DC-SIGN) and high levels of human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-DR. Dermal pDCs expressed both HIV coreceptors without increases in HLA-DR intensity. Compared with normal blood, circulating mDCs in patients with syphilis expressed higher levels of both CCR5 and DC-SIGN, whereas circulating pDCs in patients expressed only higher levels of DC-SIGN. Most dermal T cells were CCR5(+) and displayed a memory (CD27(+)/CD45RO(+)) or memory/effector (CD27(-)/CD45RO(+)) immunophenotype. A corresponding shift toward memory and memory/effector immunophenotype was clearly discernible among circulating CD4(+) T cells. Compared with PB from control subjects, a larger percentage of CD4(+) T cells in PB from patients with syphilis expressed the activation markers CD69 and CD38.
Conclusions: During secondary syphilis, T. pallidum simultaneously elicits local and systemic innate and adaptive immune responses that may set the stage for the bidirectional transmission of HIV.