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Open Access Research

Modulation of the host Th1 immune response in pigeon protozoal encephalitis caused by Sarcocystis calchasi

Philipp Olias1*, Anne Meyer1, Robert Klopfleisch1, Michael Lierz2, Bernd Kaspers3 and Achim D Gruber1

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Veterinary Pathology, Freie Universität Berlin, Robert-von-Ostertag-Str. 15, Berlin 14163, Germany

2 Clinic for Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, Frankfurter Straße 91-93, Gießen, 35392, Germany

3 Department of Veterinary Science, University of Munich, Veterinärstr. 13, München, 80539, Germany

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Veterinary Research 2013, 44:10  doi:10.1186/1297-9716-44-10

Published: 11 February 2013

Abstract

Pigeon protozoal encephalitis (PPE) is an emerging central-nervous disease of domestic pigeons (Columba livia f. domestica) reported in Germany and the United States. It is caused by the apicomplexan parasite Sarcocystis calchasi which is transmitted by Accipter hawks. In contrast to other members of the Apicomplexa such as Toxoplasma and Plasmodium, the knowledge about the pathophysiology and host manipulation of Sarcocystis is scarce and almost nothing is known about PPE. Here we show by mRNA expression profiling a significant down-modulation of the interleukin (IL)-12/IL-18/interferon (IFN)-γ axis in the brains of experimentally infected pigeons during the schizogonic phase of disease. Concomitantly, no cellular immune response was observed in histopathology while immunohistochemistry and nested PCR detected S. calchasi. In contrast, in the late central-nervous phase, IFN-γ and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) α-related cytokines were significantly up-modulated, which correlated with a prominent MHC-II protein expression in areas of mononuclear cell infiltration and necrosis. The mononuclear cell fraction was mainly composed of T-lymphocytes, fewer macrophages and B-lymphocytes. Surprisingly, the severity and composition of the immune cell response appears unrelated to the infectious dose, although the severity and onset of the central nervous signs clearly was dose-dependent. We identified no or only very few tissue cysts by immunohistochemistry in pigeons with severe encephalitis of which one pigeon repeatedly remained negative by PCR despite severe lesions. Taken together, these observations may suggest an immune evasion strategy of S. calchasi during the early phase and a delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction as cause of the extensive cerebral lesions during the late neurological phase of disease.