To determine the potential contribution of innate immune responses to the early proinflammatory cytokine response to Plasmodium falciparum malaria, we have examined the kinetics and cellular sources of IFN-gamma production in response to human PBMC activation by intact, infected RBC (iRBC) or freeze-thaw lysates of P. falciparum schizonts. Infected erythrocytes induce a more rapid and intense IFN-gamma response from malaria-naive PBMC than do P. falciparum schizont lysates correlating with rapid iRBC activation of the CD3(-)CD56(+) NK cell population to produce IFN-gamma. IFN-gamma(+) NK cells are detectable within 6 h of coculture with iRBC, their numbers peaking at 24 h in most donors. There is marked heterogeneity between donors in magnitude of the NK-IFN-gamma response that does not correlate with mitogen- or cytokine-induced NK activation or prior malaria exposure. The NK cell-mediated IFN-gamma response is highly IL-12 dependent and appears to be partially IL-18 dependent. Exogenous rIL-12 or rIL-18 did not augment NK cell IFN-gamma responses, indicating that production of IL-12 and IL-18 is not the limiting factor explaining differences in NK cell reactivity between donors or between live and dead parasites. These data indicate that NK cells may represent an important early source of IFN-gamma, a cytokine that has been implicated in induction of various antiparasitic effector mechanisms. The heterogeneity of this early IFN-gamma response between donors suggests a variation in their ability to mount a rapid proinflammatory cytokine response to malaria infection that may, in turn, influence their innate susceptibility to malaria infection, malaria-related morbidity, or death from malaria.
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