The biological basis of severe outcomes in Anaplasma phagocytophilum infection


Correspondence: J. Stephen Dumler, Division of Medical Microbiology, Department of Pathology, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 720 Rutland Avenue, Ross 624, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA. Tel.: +1 410 955 8654; fax: +1 443 287 3665; e-mail


Anaplasma phagocytophilum causes granulocytic anaplasmosis, an acute disease in humans that is also often subclinical. However, 36% are hospitalized, 7% need intensive care, and the case fatality rate is 0.6%. The biological basis for severe disease is not understood. Despite A. phagocytophilum's mechanisms to subvert neutrophil antimicrobial responses, whether these mechanisms lead to disease is unclear. In animals, inflammatory lesions track with IFNγ and IL-10 expression and infection of Ifng−/− mice leads to increased pathogen load but inhibition of inflammation. Suppression of STAT signaling in horses impacts IL-10 and IFN-γ expression, and also suppresses disease severity. Similar inhibition of inflammation with infection of NKT-deficient mice suggests that innate immune responses are key for disease. With severe disease, tissues can demonstrate hemophagocytosis, and measures of macrophage activation/hemophagocytic syndromes (MAS/HPS) support the concept of human granulocytic anaplasmosis as an immunopathologic disease. MAS/HPS are related to defective cytotoxic lymphocytes that ordinarily diminish inflammation. Pilot studies in mice show cytotoxic lymphocyte activation with A. phagocytophilum infection, yet suppression of cytotoxic responses from both NKT and CD8 cells, consistent with the development of MAS/HPS. Whether severity relates to microbial factors or genetically determined diversity in human immune and inflammatory response needs more investigation.