Spleen cells obtained from mice 5 to 40 days after infection with viable BCG organisms (BCG-spleens) were found to be unresponsive in vitro to both mitogenic and alloantigenic stimuli. Moreover, suppressor cells could be demonstrated in the spleens from these infected animals. When spleen cells from BCG-infected mice were added to either syngeneic or allogeneic normal spleen cells, the mixtures neither proliferated nor developed cytotoxic activity when cultured with alloantigen or with concanavalin A (Con A). The development of unresponsiveness post-infection paralleled the onset of suppressive activity. Spleen cells obtained from mice given heat-killed BCG were neither suppressive nor unresponsive.
The suppressive activity of BCG-spleen cells was associated with an adherent, phagocytic cell that lacked membrane-associated Thy-1 antigen. Removal of this cell by passage through nylon wool columns resulted in a cell population that was no longer capable of suppression and that responded normally to alloantigen and to Con A.
It would thus appear that BCG infection results in the development of a “suppressor” macrophage-like cell population within the spleen. The role of this cell type in regulation of the immune response in BCG-infected animals is as yet undefined.
This work was supported by Grant AI 13894 from the National Institutes of Health. This is communication No. 294 from the O'Neill Memorial Research Laboratories.