Microbiologists at the University of Leicester have worked on Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) for many years. This research is now starting to pave the way for more effective vaccines against this pathogen. The pneumococcus is a pathogen of global significance, responsible for millions of deaths annually from pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia while also causing other less serious infections, such as otitis media and sinusitis. In order to develop improved pneumococcal vaccines it is essential to understand how the bacterium interacts with the host immune system.
Pneumococci produce a range of pathogenicity factors, among which the toxin pneumolysin plays a central role and has potential as a vaccine candidate. A new paper demonstrates that pneumolysin can directly activate innate immune cells and dramatically amplify the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. These enhancing effects of the toxin do not require Toll-like receptor (TLR)4. In particular, the toxin exerts a potent effect on interleukin (IL)-1, which is an endogenous pyrogen and powerful activator of IL-17A production. This effect results from activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome complex and NLRP3 is required for protection against the pathogen in vivo. To induce protective immunity against pneumococci, IFN-γ and IL-17A are thought to be essential. Pneumolysin plays a key role in promoting these cytokines both in vitro and in vivo during respiratory infection. The results add significantly to our understanding of the interactions between pneumococci and the immune system and support investigations into the inclusion of pneumolysin or its derivatives in novel pneumococcal vaccines.
Pneumolysin Activates the NLRP3 Inflammasome and Promotes Proinflammatory Cytokines Independently of TLR4. (2010) PLoS Pathog 6(11): e1001191. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001191
Pneumolysin (PLY) is a key Streptococcus pneumoniae virulence factor and potential candidate for inclusion in pneumococcal subunit vaccines. Dendritic cells (DC) play a key role in the initiation and instruction of adaptive immunity, but the effects of PLY on DC have not been widely investigated. Endotoxin-free PLY enhanced costimulatory molecule expression on DC but did not induce cytokine secretion. These effects have functional significance as adoptive transfer of DC exposed to PLY and antigen resulted in stronger antigen-specific T cell proliferation than transfer of DC exposed to antigen alone. PLY synergized with TLR agonists to enhance secretion of the proinflammatory cytokines IL-12, IL-23, IL-6, IL-1β, IL-1α and TNF-α by DC and enhanced cytokines including IL-17A and IFN-γ by splenocytes. PLY-induced DC maturation and cytokine secretion by DC and splenocytes was TLR4-independent. Both IL-17A and IFN-γ are required for protective immunity to pneumococcal infection and intranasal infection of mice with PLY-deficient pneumococci induced significantly less IFN-γ and IL-17A in the lungs compared to infection with wild-type bacteria. IL-1β plays a key role in promoting IL-17A and was previously shown to mediate protection against pneumococcal infection. The enhancement of IL-1β secretion by whole live S. pneumoniae and by PLY in DC required NLRP3, identifying PLY as a novel NLRP3 inflammasome activator. Furthermore, NLRP3 was required for protective immunity against respiratory infection with S. pneumoniae. These results add significantly to our understanding of the interactions between PLY and the immune system.