The pathophysiological hallmark of spotted fever group rickettsioses comprises vascular inflammation. Based on the emerging importance of the wingless (Wnt) pathways in inflammation and vascular biology, we hypothesized that Dickkopf-1 (DKK-1), as a major modulator of Wnt signaling, could be involved in the pathogenesis in rickettsial infections. Our major findings were: (i) While baseline concentration of DKK-1 in patients with R. conorii infection (n = 32) were not different from levels in controls (n = 24), DKK-1 rose significantly from presentation to first follow-up sample (median 7 days after baseline). (ii) In vitro experiments in human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) showed that while heat-inactivated R. conorii enhanced the release of interleukin-6 (IL-6) and IL-8, it down-regulated the release of endothelial-derived DKK-1 in a time- and dose-dependent manner. (iii) Silencing of DKK-1 attenuated the release of IL-6, IL-8 and growth-related oncogene (GRO)α in R. conorii-exposed HUVECs, suggesting inflammatory effects of DKK-1. (iv) Silencing of DKK-1 attenuated the expression of tissue factor and enhanced the expression of thrombomodulin in R. conorii-exposed HUVECs suggesting pro-thrombotic effects of DKK-1. The capacity of R. conorii to down-regulate endothelial-derived DKK-1 and the ability of silencing DKK-1 to attenuate R. conorii-induced inflammation in endothelial cells could potentially reflect a novel mechanism by which R. conorii escapes the immune response at the site of infection.
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