Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is associated with a mortality rate of >35%. We previously showed that MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) could infect human macrophages and dendritic cells and induce cytokine dysregulation. Here, we further investigated the interplay between human primary T cells and MERS-CoV in disease pathogenesis. Importantly, our results suggested that MERS-CoV efficiently infected T cells from the peripheral blood and from human lymphoid organs, including the spleen and the tonsil. We further demonstrated that MERS-CoV infection induced apoptosis in T cells, which involved the activation of both the extrinsic and intrinsic apoptosis pathways. Remarkably, immunostaining of spleen sections from MERS-CoV-infected common marmosets demonstrated the presence of viral nucleoprotein in their CD3(+) T cells. Overall, our results suggested that the unusual capacity of MERS-CoV to infect T cells and induce apoptosis might partly contribute to the high pathogenicity of the virus.
Keywords: MERS-CoV; T lymphocytes; apoptosis; caspase; marmosets; spleen; tonsil.
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