We have examined the remains of a Pilgrim burial from St Mary Magdalen, Winchester. The individual was a young adult male, aged around 18-25 years at the time of death. Radiocarbon dating showed the remains dated to the late 11th-early 12th centuries, a time when pilgrimages were at their height in Europe. Several lines of evidence in connection with the burial suggested this was an individual of some means and prestige. Although buried within the leprosarium cemetery, the skeleton showed only minimal skeletal evidence for leprosy, which was confined to the bones of the feet and legs. Nonetheless, molecular testing of several skeletal elements, including uninvolved bones all showed robust evidence of DNA from Mycobacterium leprae, consistent with the lepromatous or multibacillary form of the disease. We infer that in life, this individual almost certainly suffered with multiple soft tissue lesions. Genotyping of the M.leprae strain showed this belonged to the 2F lineage, today associated with cases from South-Central and Western Asia. During osteological examination it was noted that the cranium and facial features displayed atypical morphology for northern European populations. Subsequently, geochemical isotopic analyses carried out on tooth enamel indicated that this individual was indeed not local to the Winchester region, although it was not possible to be more specific about their geographic origin.
Nine burials excavated from the Magdalen Hill Archaeological Research Project (MHARP) in Winchester, UK, showing skeletal signs of lepromatous leprosy (LL) have been studied using a multidisciplinary approach including osteological, geochemical and biomolecular techniques. DNA from Mycobacterium leprae was amplified from all nine skeletons but not from control skeletons devoid of indicative pathology. In several specimens we corroborated the identification of M. leprae with detection of mycolic acids specific to the cell wall of M. leprae and persistent in the skeletal samples. In five cases, the preservation of the material allowed detailed genotyping using single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and multiple locus variable number tandem repeat analysis (MLVA). Three of the five cases proved to be infected with SNP type 3I-1, ancestral to contemporary M. leprae isolates found in southern states of America and likely carried by European migrants. From the remaining two burials we identified, for the first time in the British Isles, the occurrence of SNP type 2F. Stable isotope analysis conducted on tooth enamel taken from two of the type 3I-1 and one of the type 2F remains revealed that all three individuals had probably spent their formative years in the Winchester area. Previously, type 2F has been implicated as the precursor strain that migrated from the Middle East to India and South-East Asia, subsequently evolving to type 1 strains. Thus we show that type 2F had also spread westwards to Britain by the early medieval period.
Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is an infectious peripheral neurological disorder caused by Mycobacterium leprae that even today leaves millions of individuals worldwide with life-long disabilities. The specific mechanisms by which this bacterium induces nerve injury remain largely unknown, mainly owing to ethical and practical limitations in obtaining affected human nerve samples. In addition to humans, nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus) are the only other natural host of M. leprae, and they develop a systemically disseminated disease with extensive neurological involvement. M. leprae is an obligate intracellular parasite that cannot be cultivated in vitro. Because of the heavy burdens of bacilli they harbor, nine-banded armadillos have become the organism of choice for propagating large quantities of M. leprae, and they are now advancing as models of leprosy pathogenesis and nerve damage. Although armadillos are exotic laboratory animals, the recently completed whole genome sequence for this animal is enabling researchers to undertake more sophisticated molecular studies and to develop armadillo-specific reagents. These advances will facilitate the use of armadillos in piloting new therapies and diagnostic regimens, and will provide new insights into the oldest known infectious neurodegenerative disorder.
BACKGROUND: Leprosy is a contagious and chronic systemic granulomatous disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. In the pathogenesis of leprosy, granulomas play a key role, however, the mechanisms of the formation and maintenance of M. leprae granulomas are still not clearly understood. METHODS: To better understand the molecular physiology of M. leprae granulomas and the interaction between the bacilli and human host cells, we developed an in vitro model of human granulomas, which mimicked the in vivo granulomas of leprosy. Macrophages were differentiated from human monocytes, and infected with M. leprae, and then cultured with autologous human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs). RESULTS: Robust granuloma-like aggregates were obtained only when the M. leprae infected macrophages were co-cultured with PBMCs. Histological examination showed M. leprae within the cytoplasmic center of the multinucleated giant cells, and these bacilli were metabolically active. Macrophages of both M1 and M2 types co-existed in the granuloma like aggregates. There was a strong relationship between the formation of granulomas and changes in the expression levels of cell surface antigens on macrophages, cytokine production and the macrophage polarization. The viability of M. leprae isolated from granulomas indicated that the formation of host cell aggregates benefited the host, but the bacilli also remained metabolically active. CONCLUSIONS: A simple in vitro model of human M. leprae granulomas was established using human monocyte-derived macrophages and PBMCs. This system may be useful to unravel the mechanisms of disease progression, and subsequently develop methods to control leprosy.
We have examined a 5th to 6th century inhumation from Great Chesterford, Essex, UK. The incomplete remains are those of a young male, aged around 21-35 years at death. The remains show osteological evidence of lepromatous leprosy (LL) and this was confirmed by lipid biomarker analysis and ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis, which provided evidence for both multi-copy and single copy loci from the Mycobacterium leprae genome. Genotyping showed the strain belonged to the 3I lineage, but the Great Chesterford isolate appeared to be ancestral to 3I strains found in later medieval cases in southern Britain and also continental Europe. While a number of contemporaneous cases exist, at present, this case of leprosy is the earliest radiocarbon dated case in Britain confirmed by both aDNA and lipid biomarkers. Importantly, Strontium and Oxygen isotope analysis suggest that the individual is likely to have originated from outside Britain. This potentially sheds light on the origins of the strain in Britain and its subsequent spread to other parts of the world, including the Americas where the 3I lineage of M. leprae is still found in some southern states of America.
Leprosy, caused by infection with Mycobacterium leprae or the recently discovered Mycobacterium lepromatosis, was once endemic in humans in the British Isles. Red squirrels in Great Britain (Sciurus vulgaris) have increasingly been observed with leprosy-like lesions on the head and limbs. Using genomics, histopathology, and serology, we found M. lepromatosis in squirrels from England, Ireland, and Scotland, and M. leprae in squirrels from Brownsea Island, England. Infection was detected in overtly diseased and seemingly healthy animals. Phylogenetic comparisons of British and Irish M. lepromatosis with two Mexican strains from humans show that they diverged from a common ancestor around 27,000 years ago, whereas the M. leprae strain is closest to one that circulated in Medieval England. Red squirrels are thus a reservoir for leprosy in the British Isles.
Mycobacterium leprae causes leprosy and is unique among mycobacterial diseases in producing peripheral neuropathy. This debilitating morbidity is attributed to axon demyelination resulting from direct interaction of the M. leprae-specific phenolic glycolipid 1 (PGL-1) with myelinating glia and their subsequent infection. Here, we use transparent zebrafish larvae to visualize the earliest events of M. leprae-induced nerve damage. We find that demyelination and axonal damage are not directly initiated by M. leprae but by infected macrophages that patrol axons; demyelination occurs in areas of intimate contact. PGL-1 confers this neurotoxic response on macrophages: macrophages infected with M. marinum-expressing PGL-1 also damage axons. PGL-1 induces nitric oxide synthase in infected macrophages, and the resultant increase in reactive nitrogen species damages axons by injuring their mitochondria and inducing demyelination. Our findings implicate the response of innate macrophages to M. leprae PGL-1 in initiating nerve damage in leprosy.
Type I interferons (IFN-α and IFN-β) are important for protection against many viral infections, whereas type II interferon (IFN-γ) is essential for host defense against some bacterial and parasitic pathogens. Study of IFN responses in human leprosy revealed an inverse correlation between IFN-β and IFN-γ gene expression programs. IFN-γ and its downstream vitamin D-dependent antimicrobial genes were preferentially expressed in self-healing tuberculoid lesions and mediated antimicrobial activity against the pathogen Mycobacterium leprae in vitro. In contrast, IFN-β and its downstream genes, including interleukin 10 (IL-10), were induced in monocytes by M. leprae in vitro, and preferentially expressed in disseminated and progressive lepromatous lesions. The IFN-γ-induced macrophage vitamin D-dependent antimicrobial peptide response was inhibited by IFN-β and by IL-10, suggesting that the differential production of IFNs contributes to protection versus pathogenesis in some human bacterial infections.
Despite a natural reservoir of Mycobacterium leprae limited to humans and free availability of an effective antibiotic treatment, more than 200,000 people develop leprosy each year. This disease remains a major cause of disability and social stigma worldwide. The cause of this constant incidence is currently unknown and indicates that important aspects of the complex relationship between the pathogen and its human host remain to be discovered. An important contribution of host genetics to susceptibility to leprosy has long been suggested to account for the considerable variability between individuals sustainably exposed to M. leprae. Given the inability to cultivate M. leprae in vitro and in the absence of relevant animal model, genetic epidemiology is the main strategy used to identify the genes and, consequently, the immunological pathways involved in protective immunity to M. leprae. Recent genome-wide studies have identified new pathophysiological pathways which importance is only beginning to be understood. In addition, the prism of human genetics placed leprosy at the crossroads of other common diseases such as Crohn’s disease, asthma or myocardial infarction. Therefore, novel lights on the pathogenesis of many common diseases could eventually emerge from the detailed understanding of a disease of the shadows.