Chemical and Genetic Modulation of the Host Immune Response to Mycobacterial Infection

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Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) is the causative agent of the disease tuberculosis, which kills more people worldwide than any other infectious disease. In 2017, nearly 2 million people died of tuberculosis. Despite the advent of antibiotics targeting Mtb, the global spread of tuberculosis continues. The development of antibiotic resistance within the bacteria has further complicated the already long and difficult course of treatment for the disease. New therapeutics are necessary to combat tuberculosis. A novel treatment strategy is the use of host-directed therapies, which provide an orthogonal approach to killing intracellular pathogens. Rather than directly targeting bacterial pathways, which may lead to the development of mutations that result in resistance to the drug, host directed therapies (HDTs) target the host immune response to the disease. To uncover these host directed therapies, we have utilized the zebrafish-Mycobacterium marinum model system. Using zebrafish infected with their natural pathogen, Mycobacterium marinum, a close genetic relative to Mtb, we show that we can enhance the ability of the host immune response to kill intracellular bacteria.

In Chapter 1, I introduce tuberculosis as a disease and discuss the past, present and future of treating the disease. I discuss potential host targets for immune modulating therapies, including autophagy, inflammation, and inflammasomes. I highlight the role of calcium signaling in immune cells, specifically neutrophils and macrophages. I briefly describe zebrafish as a model system, emphasizing their use to study immune responses and host-pathogen interactions. In Chapter 2, we show calcium is required for immune cell activity and motility in neutrophils. Calcium is a signal that leads neutrophils not only to wound sites but also to sites of infection and inflammation. We then enhance calcium signaling through potentiation of the membrane channel P2RX7 with the small molecule clemastine, an FDA-approved over-the-counter antihistamine in Chapter 3. We show that clemastine treatment reduces bacterial burden in a P2RX7 –dependent manner in zebrafish larvae. P2RX7 activation leads to assembly of inflammasomes in macrophages, a key immune cell of mycobacterial infection. In human mycobacterial disease, many of the bacteria are contained within structures called granulomas, in which host macrophages and other immune cells have formed a cuff around the bacteria, creating a space that is recalcitrant to treatment with frontline antibiotics. Clemastine is effective in these established infection structures, indicating that it may be a feasible strategy to treat human tuberculosis. We discuss how mycobacteria evade the host immune response and demonstrate how a small molecule can overcome these evasion strategies for improved host outcome.





Matty, Molly Anastasia (2018). Chemical and Genetic Modulation of the Host Immune Response to Mycobacterial Infection. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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