Staphylococcal TSST-1 Association with Eczema Herpeticum in Humans

mSphere. 2021 Aug 25;6(4):e0060821. doi: 10.1128/mSphere.00608-21. Epub 2021 Jul 28.


Atopic dermatitis (AD) is a condition affecting 30 million persons in the United States. AD patients are heavily infected with Staphylococcus aureus on the skin. A particularly severe form of AD is eczema herpeticum (ADEH), where the patients' AD is complicated by S. aureus and herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection. This study examined the S. aureus strains from 15 ADEH patients, provided blinded, and showed a high association of ADEH with strains that produce toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1; 73%) compared to 10% production by typical AD isolates from patients without EH and those from another unrelated condition, cystic fibrosis. The ADEH isolates produced the superantigens associated with TSS (TSST-1 and staphylococcal enterotoxins A, B, and C). This association may in part explain the potential severity of ADEH. We also examined the effect of TSST-1 and HSV-1 on human epithelial cells and keratinocytes. TSST-1 used CD40 as its receptor on epithelial cells, and HSV-1 either directly or indirectly interacted with CD40. The consequence of these interactions was chemokine production, which is capable of causing harmful inflammation, with epidermal/keratinocyte barrier disruption. Human epithelial cells treated first with TSST-1 and then HSV-1 resulted in enhanced chemokine production. Finally, we showed that TSST-1 modestly increased HSV-1 replication but did not increase viral plaque size. Our data suggest that ADEH is associated with production of the major TSS-associated superantigens, together with HSV reactivation. The superantigens plus HSV may damage the skin barrier by causing harmful inflammation, thereby leading to increased symptoms. IMPORTANCE Atopic dermatitis (eczema, AD) with concurrent herpes simplex virus infection (eczema herpeticum, ADEH) is a severe form of AD. We show that ADEH patients are colonized with Staphylococcus aureus that primarily produces the superantigen toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1); however, significantly but to a lesser extent the superantigens staphylococcal enterotoxins A, B, and C are also represented in ADEH. Our studies showed that TSST-1 uses the immune costimulatory molecule CD40 as its epithelial cell receptor. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) also interacted directly or indirectly with CD40 on epithelial cells. Treatment of epithelial cells with TSST-1 and then HSV-1 resulted in enhanced chemokine production. We propose that this combination of exposures (TSST-1 and then HSV) leads to opening of epithelial and skin barriers to facilitate potentially serious ADEH.

Keywords: CD40; Staphylococcus aureus; atopic dermatitis; chemokines; eczema; eczema herpeticum; epithelial cells; herpes simplex virus; staphylococcal enterotoxins; toxic shock syndrome toxin 1.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Toxins / genetics*
  • Bacterial Toxins / immunology
  • Bacterial Toxins / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Toxins / pharmacology
  • CD40 Antigens / immunology
  • Chemokines / immunology
  • Enterotoxins / genetics*
  • Enterotoxins / immunology
  • Enterotoxins / metabolism*
  • Enterotoxins / pharmacology
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects
  • Epithelial Cells / immunology
  • Epithelial Cells / microbiology
  • Epithelial Cells / virology
  • HaCaT Cells
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / immunology
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Kaposi Varicelliform Eruption / microbiology*
  • Keratinocytes / drug effects
  • Keratinocytes / immunology
  • Keratinocytes / microbiology
  • Keratinocytes / virology
  • Staphylococcus aureus / metabolism
  • Staphylococcus aureus / pathogenicity*
  • Superantigens / genetics*
  • Superantigens / immunology
  • Superantigens / metabolism*
  • Superantigens / pharmacology


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • CD40 Antigens
  • Chemokines
  • Enterotoxins
  • Superantigens
  • enterotoxin F, Staphylococcal