Mediterranean spotted fever due to infection by Rickettsia conorii, is characterized by a general vasculitis. This vasculitis is thought to be due to a direct injury to endothelial cells induced by R. conorii. However, production and activity of cytokines on endothelial cells is an important pathway in inflammation, and part of the underlying mechanism of vasculitis. In the present studies, human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) infected with R. conorii actively secrete high levels of IL-8 and IL-6 (P < 0.002, and P < 0.03, respectively, compared with uninfected cells). IL-1alpha, IL-1beta, or TNFalpha were not detected in the culture supernates. Nevertheless, IL-6 and IL-8 production was due, in a large part, to a cell-associated form of IL-1 alpha expressed on R. conorii-infected HUVEC, since production of these cytokines was suppressed by 80% (P = 0.0001) and 85% (P < 0.04) by the addition of IL-1 receptor antagonist, or anti-IL-1alpha antibodies (60% inhibition, P < 0.01 and 65% inhibition, P < 0.05, respectively) and IL-1alpha was measured after lysis of R. conorii-infected HUVEC but not in uninfected cells (P < 0.01). Rickettsial lipopolysaccharide does not seem to be involved, since polymyxin B did not reduce cytokine secretion. On the contrary, infection by intracellular R. conorii appears to be necessary to induce IL-1alpha and subsequently IL-8, since formalin-fixed R. conorii did not induce cytokine production. These observations demonstrate that R. conorii-infected HUVEC secrete IL-6 and IL-8 via the induction of cell-associated IL-1alpha, providing a possible mechanism for the vasculitis observed in Mediterranean spotted fever
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