The induction of pathogenic immune responses may be dependent on the immune system receiving ‘danger’ signals resulting from tissue damage, rather than tolerogenic stimuli associated with normal cell turnover. The aim was to test this hypothesis by comparing the effects of the uptake of necrotic and apoptotic cells on the ability of antigen-presenting cells (APC) to stimulate immune responses in vitro. The experiments focused on presentation by the macrophage, which is the main cell type adapted for clearing cellular debris in vivo. Murine bone marrow-derived macrophages were pulsed with neutrophils that had been rendered apoptotic or necrotic, and tested for the ability to induce T cell responses. The macrophages that had taken up necrotic, but not apoptotic, cells were able to stimulate recall proliferation by ovalbumin-specific T cells. Furthermore, the response to the mitogen concanavalin A (Con A) was more than 6 times higher when macrophages had been pulsed with necrotic, in comparison with apoptotic, cells. In control experiments, macrophages that had not been exposed to dying neutrophils stimulated weak responses to ovalbumin and Con A. To determine why the uptake of apoptotic and necrotic cells exert opposing effects on the ability of macrophages to stimulate T cells, the expression of costimulatory molecules by treated macrophages, and their production of potentially immunomodulatory cytokines were measured. Flow cytometry revealed that macrophages that had taken up necrotic, but not apoptotic, neutrophils expressed increased levels of CD40 compared to untreated controls within 4 h. Macrophages pulsed with apoptotic cells secreted higher levels of transforming growth factor-β1 than those ingesting necrotic cells or untreated controls. Our interpretation of these results is that macrophages that have taken up necrotic cell debris present antigens to T lymphocytes with greater efficiency due to transient CD40 upregulation, whereas those that have ingested apoptotic cells are ineffective APC since they secrete inhibitory cytokine.

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