Background: The induction of an immune response to a biologically inert soluble protein requires an adjuvant. Here we have examined whether intact grains of pollen display such adjuvant effect, accounting for the immunogenic activity of pollen protein allergens that are devoid of intrinsic pro-inflammatory/adjuvant property.
Methods: Human monocyte-derived dendritic cells (DCs) were cultured with intact grains of grass or ragweed pollen for 48 h. The state of DCs maturation was analyzed by FACS and their cytokine production by ELISA. T cell priming activity of DCs was examined in co-cultures with naïve cord blood-derived CD4+ T cells.
Results: Contact with grains of pollen induced a distinct maturation program in immature DCs. Pollen up-regulated the expression of CD54, CD80, CD83, CD86, HLA-DR, CCR7, and CD40 on DCs. Moreover, CCR5 expression was up-regulated by pollen but suppressed by LPS. In sharp contrast to LPS-stimulated DCs, pollen-treated DCs did not produce cytokines [interleukin (IL)-10, IL-12, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α] but retained the ability to secrete high levels of these cytokines upon simulation with soluble CD40 ligand and interferon (IFN)-γ. Pollen-primed DCs strongly stimulated the proliferation of allogeneic naïve CD4+ T cells and promoted their development into effector cells producing high levels of IL-5 and IL-13 together with moderate levels of IFN-γ and IL-4.
Conclusion: Intact grains of pollen induce activation and maturation of DCs in vitro. Similar mechanisms may be effective in vivo, suggesting that pollen grain is not only an allergen carrier but also acts as an adjuvant in the induction phase of the allergic immune response.