Recent data suggest that the clinical course of reactional states in leprosy is closely related to the cytokine profile released locally or systemically by the patients. In the present study, patients with erythema nodosum leprosum (ENL) were grouped according to the intensity of their clinical symptoms. Clinical and immunological aspects of ENL and the impact of these parameters on bacterial load were assessed in conjunction with patients' in vitro immune response to mycobacterial antigens. In 10 out of the 17 patients tested, BI (bacterial index) was reduced by at least 1 log from leprosy diagnosis to the onset of their first reactional episode (ENL), as compared to an expected 0.3 log reduction in the unreactional group for the same MDT (multidrug therapy) period. However, no difference in the rate of BI reduction was noted at the end of MDT among ENL and unreactional lepromatous patients. Accordingly, although TNF-alpha (tumor necrosis factor) levels were enhanced in the sera of 70.6% of the ENL patients tested, no relationship was noted between circulating TNF-alpha levels and the decrease in BI detected at the onset of the reactional episode. Evaluation of bacterial viability of M. leprae isolated from the reactional lesions showed no growth in the mouse footpads. Only 20% of the patients demonstrated specific immune response to M. leprae during ENL. Moreover, high levels of soluble IL-2R (interleukin-2 receptor) were present in 78% of the patients. Circulating anti-neural (anti-ceramide and anti-galactocerebroside antibodies) and anti-mycobacterial antibodies were detected in ENL patients' sera as well, which were not related to the clinical course of disease. Our data suggest that bacterial killing is enhanced during reactions. Emergence of specific immune response to M. leprae and the effective role of TNF-alpha in mediating fragmentation of bacteria still need to be clarified.
Leprosy; TNF-alpha; ENL; Cytokines; Mycobacterial antigens