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Open Access Research

Thymic function and T cell parameters in a natural human experimental model of seasonal infectious diseases and nutritional burden

Pa T Ngom1*, Juan Solon1, Sophie E Moore1, Gareth Morgan1, Andrew M Prentice12 and Richard Aspinall3

Author Affiliations

1 Nutrition Programme, MRC Laboratories, The Gambia

2 MRC International Nutrition Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London WC1E 7HT, UK

3 Translational Medicine, Cranfield Health, Cranfield, UK

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Journal of Biomedical Science 2011, 18:41  doi:10.1186/1423-0127-18-41

Published: 15 June 2011

Abstract

Background

The study exploits a natural human experimental model of subsistence farmers experiencing chronic and seasonally modified food shortages and infectious burden. Two seasons existed, one of increased deprivation and infections (Jul-Dec), another of abundance and low infections (Jan-Jun); referred to as the hungry/high infection and harvest/low infection seasons respectively. Prior analysis showed a 10-fold excess in infectious disease associated mortality in young adults born in the hungry/high infection versus harvest/low infection season, and reduced thymic output and T cell counts in infancy. Here we report findings on the role of early life stressors as contributors to the onset of T cell immunological defects in later life.

Methods

We hypothesised that season of birth effects on thymic function and T cell immunity would be detectable in young adults since Kaplan-Meier survival curves indicated this to be the time of greatest mortality divergence. T cell subset analyses by flow-cytometry, sjTRECs, TCRVβ repertoire and telomere length by PCR, were performed on samples from 60 males (18-23 y) selected to represent births in the hungry/high infection and harvest/low infection

Results

Total lymphocyte counts were normal and did not differ by birth season. CD3+ and CD4+ but not CD8+ counts were lower for those born during the hungry/high infection season. CD8+ telomere length also tended to be shorter. Overall, CD8+ TCRVβ repertoire skewing was observed with 'public' expressions and deletions seen in TCRVβ12/22 and TCRVβ24, respectively but no apparent effect of birth season.

Conclusions

We conclude that, although thymic function was unchanged, the CD4+ and CD3+ counts, and CD8+ telomere length results suggested that aspects of adult T cell immunity were under the influence of early life stressors. The endemicity of CMV and HBV suggested that chronic infections may modulate immunity through T cell repertoire development. The overall implications being that, this population is at an elevated risk of premature immunosenescence possibly driven by a combination of nutritional and infectious burden.