Background: Chlamydia trachomatis is a unique obligate intracellular bacterium that remains the leading cause of sexually transmitted bacterial diseases and preventable blindness worldwide. Chronic ocular infections are referred to as trachoma, and predominate in developing countries. Since 2001, the World Health Organization has promoted control strategies including antibiotics, improved hygiene, and environmental measures with limited success. Consequently, a vaccine is urgently needed. Integral to vaccine design is an understanding of the interactions of the pathogen and host immune response. Various animal models of trachoma show that urogenital C. trachomatis strains and other species of the family Chlamydiaceae produce severe conjunctival inflammation and scarring similar to that of the ocular C. trachomatis strains. However, we do not know the extent of organisms that may be involved in human trachoma. Furthermore, C. trachomatis heat shock protein 60 (Hsp60) has been implicated in inflammation and conjunctival scarring but the role of other Chlamydiaceae Hsp60 in disease pathogenesis has not been examined. In this study, we set out to identify whether other Chlamydiaceae species are present in trachoma, and determine their association with severity of clinical disease and with mucosal and systemic immune responses to Chlamydiaceae species-specific Hsp60 to further investigate the immunopathogenesis of this blinding disease.
Methods and findings: We randomly selected nine of 49 households in a trachoma-endemic region of Nepal. Trachoma was graded, and real-time, quantitative (k)PCR was used to detect genomic DNA and cDNA (from RNA) for Chlamydiaceae ompA and 16S rRNA genes, respectively, from conjunctival swabs. IgG antibody responses to recombinant (r) Chlamydiaceae species-specific Hsp60 were determined for tears and sera. Surprisingly, all three species-C. trachomatis, Chlamydophila psittaci, and Chlamydophila pneumoniae-were detected in eight (89%) study households; one household had no members infected with C. pneumoniae. Of 80 (63%; n = 127) infected individuals, 28 (35%) had infection with C. psittaci, or C. pneumoniae, or both; single and dual infections with C. psittaci and C. pneumoniae were significantly associated with severe conjunctival inflammation (OR 4.25 [95% confidence interval (CI), 2.9-11.3], p = 0.009] as were single infections with C. trachomatis (OR 5.7 [95% CI, 3.8-10.1], p = 0.002). Of the 80 infected individuals, 75 (93.8%) were also positive for 16S rRNA by kPCR for the same organism identified by ompA. Individuals with tear IgG immunoreactivity to Chlamydiaceae rHsp60 were eight times more likely than individuals without tear immunoreactivity to be infected (95% CI 6.4-15.1; p = 0.003), 6.2 times more likely to have severe inflammation (95% CI 4.4-12.6; p = 0.001), and 5.7 times more likely to have scarring (95% CI 3.9-11.1; p = 0.019) while individuals with serum IgG immunoreactivity were 4.1 times more likely to be infected (95% CI 3.1-10.1; p = 0.014).
Conclusions: We provide substantial evidence for the involvement of C. psittaci and C. pneumoniae, in addition to C. trachomatis, in trachoma. The distribution of Chlamydiaceae species by household and age suggests that these infections are widespread and not just sporadic occurrences. Infection with multiple species may explain the failure to detect chlamydiae among active trachoma cases, when only C. trachomatis is assayed for, and the failure of clinically active cases to resolve their disease following what would be considered effective C. trachomatis treatment. The evidence for viable (RNA-positive) organisms of all three species in single and coinfections, the significant association of these infections with severe inflammation, and the significant association of tear and serum IgG responses to Chlamydiaceae Hsp60 with inflammation and scarring, support the role of all three species in disease pathogenesis. Thus, while our findings should be confirmed in other trachoma-endemic countries, our data suggest that a reevaluation of treatment regimens and vaccine design may be required. Understanding the full impact of Chlamydiaceae species on the epidemiology, immunopathology, and disease outcome of trachoma presents a new challenge for Chlamydiaceae research.