Background: Mycobacterium-induced granulomas are the interface between bacteria and host immune response. During acute infection dendritic cells (DCs) are critical for mycobacterial dissemination and activation of protective T cells. However, their role during chronic infection in the granuloma is poorly understood.
Methodology/principal findings: We report that an inflammatory subset of murine DCs are present in granulomas induced by Mycobacteria bovis strain Bacillus Calmette-guerin (BCG), and both their location in granulomas and costimulatory molecule expression changes throughout infection. By flow cytometric analysis, we found that CD11c(+) cells in chronic granulomas had lower expression of MHCII and co-stimulatory molecules CD40, CD80 and CD86, and higher expression of inhibitory molecules PD-L1 and PD-L2 compared to CD11c(+) cells from acute granulomas. As a consequence of their phenotype, CD11c(+) cells from chronic lesions were unable to support the reactivation of newly-recruited, antigen 85B-specific CD4(+)IFNgamma(+) T cells or induce an IFNgamma response from naïve T cells in vivo and ex vivo. The mechanism of this inhibition involves the PD-1:PD-L signaling pathway, as ex vivo blockade of PD-L1 and PD-L2 restored the ability of isolated CD11c(+) cells from chronic lesions to stimulate a protective IFNgamma T cell response.
Conclusions/significance: Our data suggest that DCs in chronic lesions may facilitate latent infection by down-regulating protective T cell responses, ultimately acting as a shield that promotes mycobacterium survival. This DC shield may explain why mycobacteria are adapted for long-term survival in granulomatous lesions.