BACKGROUND: Macrophage activation by cytokines provides only a partial explanation of antimycobacterial immunity in man. Because cytolytic T lymphocytes have been shown to contribute to immunity in animal models of intracellular infection, the generation of mycobacterial antigen specific cytotoxic T cells was examined in the peripheral blood of patients with tuberculosis. METHODS: Subjects comprised 36 patients with active tuberculosis (18 newly diagnosed) and 32 healthy volunteers, of whom 25 had had BCG vaccination and seven were Mantoux negative. The ability of purified protein derivative (PPD) stimulated peripheral blood lymphocytes to lyse autologous, mycobacterial antigen bearing macrophages was examined by using a chromium 51 release assay. RESULTS: PPD stimulated lymphocytes from normal, Mantoux positive, BCG vaccinated subjects produced high levels of PPD specific cytolysis, whereas lymphocytes from unvaccinated, uninfected subjects caused little or no cytolysis. The generation of cytolytic T lymphocytes by patients with tuberculosis was related to their clinical state. Those with cavitating pulmonary disease or lymph node tuberculosis generated PPD specific lymphocytes with cytotoxic ability similar to that of those from Mantoux positive control subjects, whereas lymphocytes from patients with non-cavitating pulmonary infiltrates showed poor antigen specific cytolysis. After seven days of stimulation with PPD in vitro, lymphoblasts contained both CD4+ and CD8+ cells. Mycobacterial antigen specific cytolysis was restricted to the CD4+ cell population and was blocked by monoclonal antibodies directed against major histocompatibility class II (MHC) antigens. CONCLUSION: CD4+ cytolytic T cells can lyse autologous macrophages presenting mycobacterial antigen and were found in patients with cavitating pulmonary tuberculosis or tuberculous lymphadenitis and in normal, Mantoux positive control subjects. The ability to generate these T cell responses seems to be a marker for response to mycobacteria and may contribute to tissue damage in tuberculosis. These responses do not provide protective immunity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis but may help in disease localisation.
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