The acute period after total body irradiation (TBI) is associated with an increased risk of infection, principally resulting from the loss of hematopoietic stem cells, as well as disruption of mucosal epithelial barriers. Although there is a return to baseline infection control coinciding with the apparent progressive recovery of hematopoietic cell populations, late susceptibility to infection in radiation-sensitive organs such as lung and kidney is known to occur. Indeed, pulmonary infections are particularly prevalent in hematopoietic cell transplant (HCT) survivors, in both adult and pediatric patient populations. Preclinical studies investigating late outcomes from localized thoracic irradiation have indicated that the mechanisms underlying pulmonary delayed effects are multifactorial, including exacerbated and persistent production of pro-inflammatory molecules and abnormal cross-talk among parenchymal and infiltrating immune and inflammatory cell populations. However, in the context of low-dose TBI, it is not clear whether the observed exacerbated response to infection remains contingent on these same mechanisms. It is possible instead, that after systemic radiation-induced injury, the susceptibility to infection may be independently related to defects in alternative organs that are revealed only through the challenge itself; indeed, we have hypothesized that this defect may be due to radiation-induced chronic effects in the structure and function of secondary lymphoid organs (SLO). In this study, we investigated the molecular and cellular alterations in SLO (i.e., spleen, mediastinal, inguinal and mesenteric lymph nodes) after TBI, and the time points when there appears to be immune competence. Furthermore, due to the high incidence of pulmonary infections in the late post-transplantation period of bone marrow transplant survivors, particularly in children, we focused on outcomes in mice irradiated as neonates, which served as a model for a pediatric population, and used the induction of adaptive immunity against influenza virus as a functional end point. We demonstrated that, in adult animals irradiated as neonates, high endothelial venule (HEV) expansion, generation of follicular helper T cells (TFH) and formation of splenic germinal centers (GC) were rapidly and, more importantly, persistently impaired in SLO, suggesting that the early-life exposure to sublethal radiation had long-lasting effects on the induction of humoral immunity. Although the neonatal TBI did not affect the overall outcome from influenza infection in the adults at the earlier time points assessed, we believe that they nonetheless contribute significantly to the increased mortality observed at subsequent late time points. Furthermore, we speculate that the detrimental and persistent impact on the induction of CD4 T- and B-cell responses in the mediastinal lymph nodes will decrease the animals' ability to respond to other aerial pathogens. Since many of these pathogens are normally cleared by antibodies, our findings provide an explanation for the susceptibility of survivors of childhood HCT to life-threatening respiratory tract infections. These findings have implications regarding the need for increased monitoring in pediatric hematopoietic cell transplant patients, since they indicate that there are ongoing and cumulative defects in SLO, which, importantly, develop during the immediate and early postirradiation period when patients may appear immunologically competent. The identification of changes in immune-related signals may offer bioindicators of progressive dysfunction, and of potential mechanisms that could be targeted so as to reduce the risk of infection from extracellular pathogens. Furthermore, these results support the potential susceptibility of the pediatric population to infection after sublethal irradiation in the context of a nuclear or radiological event.
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Vol. 184 • No. 4