Q fever: persistence of antigenic non-viable cell residues of Coxiella burnetii in the host--implications for post Q fever infection fatigue syndrome and other chronic sequelae

QJM. 2009 Oct;102(10):673-84. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hcp077. Epub 2009 Jun 25.


Background: Our previous studies of persistence of Coxiella burnetii in humans after an initial acute Q fever infection revealed raised, maintained antibody levels and low levels of coxiella genomic DNA at the age of 5 years from onset in Australian patients and at 12 years in patients in the 1989 Birmingham UK Q fever outbreak. Attempts to isolate the coxiella in standard cell culture and susceptible mice by serial passage of PCR positive PBMC and bone marrow were negative.

Aim: To retest PCR positive patient samples by more sensitive methods for viable coxiellas and for the coxiella cell components of antigen and specific lipopolysaccharide (LPS). To re-interpret the previous results in the light of the new information. To review the pertinent literature for a concept of an immuno-modulatory complex generated by the current studies.

Design: Laboratory case study.

Methods: Stored patient samples were inoculated into SCID mice that were followed for 60 days. Mouse spleen and liver samples were then examined by PCR assay for targets in the COM1 and IS1111a sequences and for antigens by IFA with a polyclonal rabbit antiserum to C. burnetii Phase 1 and a monoclonal antiserum to Phase 1 LPS (details; O. Sukocheva et al., unpublished data).

Results: All specimens, including a recently excised heart valve from a Birmingham patient with late developing endocarditis, were infection negative in SCID mice. Dilutions of SCID mouse spleen and liver homogenates titrated in PCR assays were negative at dilutions attained by control mice inoculated with an endpoint dilution of a viable prototype strain of C. burnetii. Sections of the spleens from all specimens showed a complex of coxiella antigen-LPS by IFA. DISCUSSION/REVIEW: We advance a concept of long-term persistence of a non-infective, non-biodegraded complex of coxiella cell components with its antigens and specific LPS [so called Immunomodulatory complex (IMC)] associated with traces of genomic DNA that signalled its presence in our earlier studies. The IMC's survival in patients for at least 12 years, and in one patient for 70 years implies a capacity for serial passage in macrophages with effective down-regulation of their biodegrading functions. The review assesses the compatibility of the IMC concept in relation to cogent literature on C. burnetii interactions with macrophage and cell-mediated immunity. Some remaining gaps in our knowledge of the organ sites and duration of carriage of viable coxiellas after initial infection are also identified.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Animals
  • Antigens, Bacterial / analysis*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Coxiella burnetii / immunology*
  • Coxiella burnetii / isolation & purification
  • DNA, Bacterial / analysis
  • Endocarditis, Bacterial / microbiology
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / immunology
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / microbiology*
  • Heart Valve Diseases / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Liver / immunology
  • Liver / microbiology
  • Macrophages / microbiology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, SCID
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Q Fever / complications
  • Q Fever / immunology*
  • Spleen / immunology
  • Spleen / microbiology


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • DNA, Bacterial