Proliferative responses of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) to Mycobacterium leprae and bacillus Calmette Guerin-derived purified protein derivative (PPD) were studied in the presence or absence of interleukin 2 (IL 2) in high M. leprae responders (tuberculoid leprosy patients and healthy subjects) and low M. leprae responders (lepromatous leprosy patients). High responders in most cases developed a strong proliferative response to both antigens in the absence of IL 2. Additional IL 2 and restimulation with antigen plus autologous antigen-presenting cells (APC) allowed the derivation of antigen-specific T cell lines. The lines were assayed for proliferative responses to several mycobacterial antigens. Both PPD and M. leprae-triggered T cell lines exhibited a good proliferative response to either antigen and showed in addition a broad cross-reactivity with other mycobacteria, suggesting a preferential T cell response to epitopes shared by several mycobacterial species. Within the lepromatous group, 50% of the patients studied could mount a proliferative response to PPD antigen in the absence of IL 2, but none of them was able to do so with M. leprae antigen. The addition of IL 2 increased the number of positive responders to PPD in this group, and in some patients IL 2 was able to restore M. leprae reactivity as well, suggesting that IL 2 had overcome a suppressor mechanism. PPD and M. leprae-triggered T cell lines were obtained from these subjects (with IL 2 added from the beginning of the culture when required). M. leprae lines exhibited variable and unstable pattern of specificity, most lines exhibiting, at least transiently, a cross-reactive response to other mycobacteria, but some displaying only M. leprae-specific response. In contrast, PPD lines from these subjects consistently exhibited a good response to PPD, a lesser response to various other mycobacteria and no response to M. leprae, a pattern differing from that obtained with PPD lines of high M. leprae responders. Co-cultures of irradiated lepromatous PPD triggered T cell lines with fresh autologous PBMC non-specifically reduced the proliferative response of the latter to PPD, as well as to unrelated antigens. A similar suppression was also observed when PPD lines from one of the tuberculoid patients were assayed. PPD and M. leprae T cell lines from both high and low responders initially exhibited the same CD4+ CD8- phenotype. In all cases, antigenic specificity declined and could not be maintained after 5 to 8 wk of continuous culture, a change associated with the progressive appearance of CD8+ and Leu8+ cells.

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