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DNA methylation profiling of immune cells from tuberculosis-exposed individuals overlaps with BCG-induced epigenetic changes and correlates with the emergence of anti-mycobacterial 'corralling cells'

By Isabelle Pehrson, Clara Braian, Lovisa Karlsson, Nina Idh, Eva Kristin Danielsson, Blanka Andersson, Jakob Paues, Jyotirmoy Das, Maria Lerm

Posted 03 Sep 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.09.01.21262945

The mechanism of protection of the only approved tuberculosis (TB) vaccine, Bacillus Calmette Guerin (BCG) is poorly understood. In recent years, epigenetic modifications induced by BCG have been demonstrated to reflect a state of trained immunity. The concept of trained immunity is now explored as a potential prevention strategy for a variety of infections. Studies on human TB immunity are dominated by those using peripheral blood as surrogate markers for immunity. Here, we instead studied the lung compartment by obtaining induced sputum from subjects included in a TB contact tracing. CD3- and HLA-DR-positive cells were isolated from the collected sputum and DNA methylome analyses performed. Unsupervised cluster analysis revealed that DNA methylomes of cells from TB-exposed individuals and controls appeared as separate clusters, and the numerous genes that were differentially methylated were functionally connected. The enriched pathways were strongly correlated to previously reported epigenetic changes and trained immunity in immune cells exposed to the BCG vaccine in human and animal studies. We further demonstrated that similar pathways were epigenetically modified in human macrophages trained with BCG in vitro. Finally, we found evidence of an M. tuberculosis-triggered emergence of a non-macrophage cell population from BCG-trained macrophage cultures. These cells did not phagocytose M. tuberculosis, but corralled the bacteria into focal points, resulting in limitation of bacterial growth. Altogether, our study demonstrates that similar epigenetic changes are induced by M. tuberculosis and BCG and suggests that the modifications promote transformation of macrophages (or an unknown progenitor) to establish a yet undescribed cellular defense mechanism which we term corralling, based on the metaphorical resemblance to sheepdog herding.

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