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In this study, skin histopathology from naive and infection-derived immune rabbits was compared following intradermal challenge using Borrelia burgdorferi B31 strain. The presence or absence of spirochetes in relationship to host cellular immune responses was determined from the time of intradermal inoculation to the time of erythema migrans (EM) development (approximately 7 days in naive rabbits) and through development of challenge immunity (approximately 5 months in naive rabbits). Skin biopsies were obtained and analyzed for the presence of spirochetes, B cells, T cells, polymorphonuclear cells (PMNs), and macrophages by immunohistochemical techniques. In infected naive animals, morphologically identifiable spirochetes were detected at 2 h and up to 3 weeks postinfection. At 12 and 24 h postinfection there was a marked PMN response that decreased by 36 to 48 h; by 72 h the PMNs were replaced by a few infiltrating macrophages. At the time of EM development and 14 days postinfection, the PMNs and macrophages were replaced by a lymphocytic infiltrate. There was a greater number of spirochetes at 14 days, a time when EM had resolved, than at 7 days postinfection. By 3 weeks postinfection there were few organisms and lymphocytes detectable. In contrast to infected naive rabbits, intact spirochetes were never visualized in skin biopsies from infection-immune rabbits; only spirochetal antigen was detected at 2, 12, and 24 h in the presence of a numerous PMN infiltrate. By 36 h postchallenge, spirochetal antigen could not be detected and the PMN response was replaced by a few infiltrating macrophages. By 72 h postchallenge, PMNs and macrophages were absent from the skin; B and T cells were never detected at any time point in skin from infection-immune rabbits. The destruction of spirochetes in immune animals in the presence of PMNs and in the absence of a lymphocytic infiltrate suggests that infection-derived immunity is antibody mediated.