The elderly are known to have enhanced susceptibility to infections and an impaired capacity to respond to vaccination. West Nile virus (WNV), a mosquito-borne flavivirus, has induced severe neurological symptoms, mostly in the elderly population. No vaccines are available for human use. Recent work showed that an attenuated WNV, a nonstructural (NS) 4B-P38G mutant, induced no lethality but strong immune responses in young (6-to 10-week-old) mice. While studying protective efficacy, we found unexpectedly that old (21-to 22-month) mice were susceptible to WNV NS4B-P38G mutant infection but were protected from subsequent lethal wild-type WNV challenge. Compared to responses in young mice, the NS4B-P38G mutant triggered higher inflammatory cytokine and interleukin-10 (IL-10) production, a delayed γδ T cell expansion, and lower antibody and WNVspecific T cell responses in old mice. Toll-like receptor 7 (TLR7) is expressed on multiple types of cells. Impaired TLR7 signaling in old mice led to dendritic cell (DC) antigen-presenting function compromise and a reduced γδ T cell and regulatory T cell (Treg) expansion during NS4B-P38G mutant infection. R848, a TLR7 agonist, decreased host vulnerability in NS4B-P38G-infected old mice by enhancing γδ T cell and Treg expansion and the antigen-presenting capacity of DCs, thereby promoting T cell responses. In summary, our results suggest that dysregulation of TLR7 partially contributes to impaired innate and adaptive T cell responses and an enhanced vulnerability in old mice during WNV NS4B-P38G mutant infection. R848 increases the safety and efficacy during immunization of old mice with the WNV NS4B-P38G mutant.
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