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NEWS | August 15, 2013

UC Davis researchers discover molecular target for the bacterial infection brucellosis

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

UC Davis scientists have uncovered a potential drug target for the development of an effective therapy against the debilitating, chronic form of the bacterial disease brucellosis, which primarily afflicts people in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.

Renee Tsolis Renee Tsolis

Brucellosis, which affects about 500,000 people worldwide each year, typically is caused by ingestion of  unsterilized milk or close contact with body secretions from infected animals. Symptoms include intermittent or irregular fever of variable duration, headache, weakness, profuse sweating, chills, weight loss and generalized aching. It can also cause long-lasting or chronic symptoms such as recurrent fevers, joint pain and fatigue.

In a paper published online this week in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, the researchers reported that they have identified the cells that harbor the B. abortus bacteria during the persistent phase of the brucellosis. The cells, known as alternatively activated macrophages (AAMs), are a recently identified category of immune defense cells.

The researchers also determined that the biological pathway peroxisome proliferator activated receptor γ, abbreviated as PPARγ, is responsible for altering the metabolism of AAMs so that they supply B. abortus with the energy in the form of glucose that enables bacteria to survive and replicate and thereby sustain the chronic phase of the infectious disease. Other labs also have shown that PPARγ control a cell’s metabolism.

“We found that PPARγ induces a metabolic shift in these cells that causes them to generate glucose,” said Renee Tsolis, associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology at UC Davis who led the study.

“Starving the B. abortus bacteria by inhibiting the PPARγ pathway may be a new approach to eradicating the chronic, difficult-to-treat form of Brucellosis infection that usually occurs because antibiotic therapy was not used during the acute, or early, phase of the infection,” said Tsolis.

Tsolis and her collaborators were the first to discover PPARγ’s role in brucellosis and to determine that AAMs harbor the bacteria during the chronic stage of the disease. The identification of the bacteria’s niche is another important clue for the development of a more effective treatment, she said.

In a series of experiments, Tsolis and collaborators found that the gene encoding PPARγ is very active during chronic Brucellosis infection, but not during acute infection, and that the B. abortus bacteria did not survive in AAMs when deprived of glucose.

When the researchers inactivated the protein that normally transports glucose, the bacteria stopped reproducing, and the infection no longer was chronic, she said. 

In mice infected with B. abortus, Tsolis and collaborators treated the animals with GW9662, a PPAR inhibitor. The researchers administered the inhibitor before the infection became chronic, or long lasting. The inhibitor significantly reduced the amount of AAMs and B. abortus bacteria in the mice.

“These results suggested that inhibition of PPARreduced the bacteria’s survival by reducing the abundance of AAMs during chronic infection,” said Tsolis.

Conversely, when the researchers treated the B. abortus-infected mice with Rosiglitazone, a drug that boosts PPAR activity, the bacteria increased by two-fold during the acute phase and four-fold during the chronic phase of infection. Rosiglitazone and other drugs that boost PPARare used to treat type 2 diabetes because they lower blood glucose by increasing cellular glucose uptake.

In other experiments, the researchers showed that AAMs, one of two categories of macrophages, are abundant in the spleen during chronic brucellosis but not during the acute, or initial, phase of the infection, which is dominated by classically activated macrophages (CAM), the second category of these immune cells.

In addition to profuse sweating, symptoms of brucellosis infection include joint and muscle pain. Among the complications of chronic infection are arthritis and endocarditis, a serious inflammation of one of the four heart valves. Brucellosis rarely occurs in the U.S., with about 100 to 200 cases reported each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 The title of the journal paper is “A PPARγ-mediated increase in glucose availability sustains chronic Brucella abortus infection in alternatively activated macrophages.”

 Authors also include: Mariana N. Xavier, Maria G. Winter, Alanna M. Spees, Andreas B. den Hartigh, Kim Nguyen, Christelle M. Roux, Vidya L. Atluri, Tobias Kerrinnes, A. Marijke Keestra and Andreas J. Baumler of UC Davis; Denise M. Monack of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA; and Paul A. Luciw, Richard A. Eigenheer, Renato L. Santos and Teane M.A. Silva of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil.

UC Davis Health System is improving lives and transforming health care by providing excellent patient care, conducting groundbreaking research, fostering innovative, interprofessional education, and creating dynamic, productive partnerships with the community. The academic health system includes one of the country's best medical schools, a 619-bed acute-care teaching hospital, a 1000-member physician's practice group and the new Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing. It is home to a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, an international neurodevelopmental institute, a stem cell institute and a comprehensive children's hospital. Other nationally prominent centers focus on advancing telemedicine, improving vascular care, eliminating health disparities and translating research findings into new treatments for patients. Together, they make UC Davis a hub of innovation that is transforming health for all. For more information, visit healthsystem.ucdavis.edu.