Background: The immune system plays a critical role in the development of co-infections, promoting or preventing establishment of multiple infections and shaping the outcome of pathogen-host interactions. Its ability to mediate the interplay between visceral leishmaniasis (VL) and malaria has been suggested, but poorly documented. The present study investigated whether concomitant infection with Leishmania donovani complex and Plasmodium falciparum in naturally co-infected patients altered the immunological response elicited by the two pathogens individually.
Results: Circulating levels of interferon (IFN)-γ, interleukin (IL)-2, IL-4, IL-6, IL-10, IL-12p70, IL-13, IL-17A and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) were assessed in sera of patients infected with active VL and/or malaria and healthy individuals from Gedarif State, Sudan. Comparative analysis of cytokine profiles from co- and mono-infected patients highlighted significant differences in the immune response mounted upon co-infection, confirming the ability of L. donovani and P. falciparum to mutually interact at the immunological level. Progressive polarization towards type-1 and pro-inflammatory cytokine patterns characterized the co-infected patients, whose response partly reflected the effect elicited by VL (IFN-γ, TNF) and malaria (IL-2, IL-13), and partly resulted from a synergistic interaction of the two diseases upon each other (IL-17A). Significantly reduced levels of P. falciparum parasitaemia (P <0.01) were detected in the co-infected group as opposed to the malaria-only patients, suggesting either a protective or a non-detrimental effect of the co-infection against P. falciparum infection.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that a new immunological scenario may occur when L. donovani and P. falciparum co-infect the same patient, with potential implications on the course and resolution of these diseases.