Distinct T-helper cell responses to Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia reflect immunologic comorbidities and correlate with mortality

Crit Care. 2018 Apr 25;22(1):107. doi: 10.1186/s13054-018-2025-x.


Background: The dysregulated host immune response that defines sepsis varies as a function of both the immune status of the host and the distinct nature of the pathogen. The degree to which immunocompromising comorbidities or immunosuppressive medications affect the immune response to infection is poorly understood because these patients are often excluded from studies about septic immunity. The objectives of this study were to determine the immune response to a single pathogen (Staphylococcus aureus) among a diverse case mix of patients and to determine whether comorbidities affect immune and clinical outcomes.

Methods: Blood samples were drawn from 95 adult inpatients at multiple time points after the first positive S. aureus blood culture. Cox proportional hazards modeling was used to determine the associations between admission neutrophil counts, admission lymphocyte counts, cytokine levels, and 90-day mortality. A nested case-control flow cytometric analysis was conducted to determine T-helper type 1 (Th1), Th2, Th17, and regulatory T-cell (Treg) subsets among a subgroup of 28 patients. In a secondary analysis, we categorized patients as either having immunocompromising disorders (human immunodeficiency virus and hematologic malignancies), receiving immunosuppressive medications, or being not immunocompromised.

Results: Higher neutrophil-to-lymphocyte count ratios and higher Th17 cytokine responses relative to Th1 cytokine responses early after infection were independently associated with mortality and did not depend on the immune state of the patient (HR 1.93, 95% CI 1.17-3.17, p = 0.01; and HR 1.13, 95% CI 1.01-1.27, p = 0.03, respectively). On the basis of flow cytometric analysis of CD4 T-helper subsets, an increasing Th17/Treg response over the course of the infection was most strongly associated with increased mortality (HR 4.41, 95% CI 1.69-11.5, p < 0.01). This type of immune response was most common among patients who were not immunocompromised. In contrast, among immunocompromised patients who died, a decreasing Th1/Treg response was most common.

Conclusions: The association of both increased Th17 responses and increased neutrophil counts relative to lymphocyte counts with mortality suggests that an overwhelming inflammatory response is detrimental. However, the differential responses of patients according to immune state suggest that immune status is an important clinical indicator that should be accounted for in the management of septic patients, as well as in the development of novel immunomodulatory therapies.

Keywords: Helper T cells; Sepsis; Staphylococcus aureus.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bacteremia / complications
  • Bacteremia / immunology
  • Bacteremia / mortality
  • Chicago
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry / methods
  • Humans
  • Lymphocyte Count / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Staphylococcal Infections / complications
  • Staphylococcal Infections / immunology*
  • Staphylococcal Infections / mortality
  • Staphylococcus aureus / immunology
  • Staphylococcus aureus / pathogenicity
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology
  • Th1 Cells / immunology
  • Th17 Cells / immunology
  • Th2 Cells / immunology


  • Cytokines