BALB/c mice resolve Leishmania donovani infection in the liver over an 8–12-week period. However, after an initial phase of 2–4 weeks where increases in parasite load are not readily detectable, parasite numbers in the spleen begin to increase reaching maximum levels at 16 weeks post-infection. Thereafter, parasite replication in the spleen is controlled and BALB/c mice maintain this residual parasite load in the spleen for many months, without further increase. We evaluated functions of CD11C+ splenic dendritic cells throughout the course of L. donovani infection in the spleen of BALB/c mice. Unlike the dendritic cell (DC)-specific antigen DEC-205, CD11C was not up-regulated on macrophages during visceral leishmaniasis. No appreciable impairment of splenic DC functions was observed when this antigen-presenting cell subset was purified from 30-day post-infected mice. Significant impairment in inducing allogeneic mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR) and presenting L. donovani antigens or keyhole limpet haemocyanin (KLH) to specific T cells was observed with CD11C+ splenic DC purified from 60-day post-infected mice. Functional impairment of splenic DC at 60 days post-infection correlated with their reduced surface expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules, impairment of interleukin-12 (IL-12) production and to their ability to suppress interferon-γ (IFN-γ) production by Leishmania antigen-primed T cells. Of interest, the impairment of splenic DC in presenting Leishmania antigens or KLH to specific T cells was corrected at 120 days post-infection, and correlated with their up-regulation of MHC class II expression, IL-12 production, induction of IFN-γ by Leishmania antigen-primed T cells and the onset of control over splenic parasite replication in vivo. These results indicate that functional integrity of DC may be important in controlling L. donovani infection
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