Liquefaction of solid caseous tuberculous lesions and the subsequent cavity formation are probably the most dangerous processes in the pathogenesis of human pulmonary tuberculosis. In liquefied caseum, the tubercle bacilli grow extracellularly for the first time since the onset of the disease and can reach such large numbers that mutants with antimicrobial resistance may develop. From a cavity, the bacilli enter the bronchial tree and spread to other parts of the lung and also to other people. Of the commonly used laboratory animals, the rabbit is the only one in which cavitary tuberculosis can be readily produced. This report is the first to describe and analyze the complete course of cavitary tuberculosis, produced by aerosolized virulent bovine-type tubercle bacilli in commercially available New Zealand white rabbits. After the inhalation of 220 to 880 bacillary units, all of the rabbits were overtly well until they were sacrificed at 33 weeks. After the inhalation of 3,900 to 5,800 bacillary units, half of the rabbits died of progressive tuberculosis between 5 and 9 weeks and the other half lived until they were sacrificed at 18 weeks. Pulmonary cavities developed in both low- and high-dose groups, some beginning as early as 6 weeks. Bacilli from primary cavities sometimes caused nearby secondary cavities, but more frequently, they ascended the bronchial escalator, were swallowed, and caused secondary tubercles in the lymphoid tissue of the appendix and ileocecal junction. Histologically, and by culture, the number of bacilli found in the liquefied caseum varied from many to comparatively few. Strong tuberculin reactions at 4 weeks after infection were associated with fewer primary lesions, while strong tuberculin reactions at 33 weeks were associated with more cavitary lesions. In the tuberculous granulation tissue surrounding caseous and liquefied pulmonary foci and cavities, we found many mature epithelioid macrophages that contained high levels of the proteinase cathepsin D. Therefore, cathepsin D probably plays a major role in the liquefaction of solid caseous material and in the subsequent cavity formation.
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