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In lipopolysaccharide-stimulated blood from 71 late-stage borreliosis patients, the ex vivo cytokine release capacity of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) was reduced to 28% +/- 5% and to 31% +/- 5% (P < or = 0.001), respectively, compared to that of 24 healthy controls. White blood cell counts were normal in both groups. To investigate direct interactions between the pathogen and the immune cells, blood from healthy controls was exposed in vitro to live or heat-killed Borrelia or to Borrelia lysate. Compared to the pattern induced by bacterial endotoxins, a reduced release of TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma and an enhanced secretion of interleukin-10 and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor was found. In blood from 10 borreliosis patients stimulated with Borrelia lysate, TNF-alpha formation was decreased to 31% +/- 14% and IFN-gamma formation was decreased to 8% +/- 3% (P < or = 0.001) compared to the cytokine response of blood from healthy controls (n = 24). We propose to consider anti-inflammatory changes in the blood cytokine response capacity elicited by Borrelia as a condition that might favor the persistence of the spirochete.