From the Journals

Measles infection linked to impaired ‘immune memory’

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Omitting measles vaccination – sound the alarm!

As a result of reduced vaccination, after decades of decline, the number of worldwide cases of measles has increased by nearly 300% since 2018. Epidemiologic evidence has associated measles infections with increases in morbidity and mortality for as long as 5 years after the infection and suggests that, in the prevaccine era, measles virus may have been associated with up to 50% of all childhood deaths, mostly because of nonmeasles infections. Measles replication in immune cells has been hypothesized to impair immune memory, potentially causing what some scientists call “immunological amnesia.”A measles virus receptor, called CD150/ SLAMF1, is highly expressed on memory T, B, and plasma cells. Measles virus gains entry to these immune memory cells using that receptor and kills the cells.

Dr. Michael E. Pichichero, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, and director of the Research Institute at Rochester (N.Y.) General Hospital

Dr. Michael E. Pichichero

In a remarkable study by Mina et al. published in Science, the impact of the phenomenon called immunologic amnesia was studied in a group of unvaccinated children who experienced natural measles infection, compared with unimmunized children who were not infected. The scientists used a cutting-edge technology to measure the antibody repertoire in blood to most known human pathogenic viruses (approximately 400 species and strains) plus many bacterial proteins. Changes in pathogen-specific antibodies measured in the peripheral blood reflect changes in the long-lived plasma cells (LLPCs) that live in the bone marrow and provide immune memory. Astonishingly, after mild or severe measles, children lost a median of 33% (range, 11%-62%) or 40% (range, 12%-73%), respectively, of their total preexisting pathogen-specific antibody repertoires. Because LLPCs do not replicate, the rebuilding of immune memory after measles-induced LLPC elimination would likely require reexposures, either through natural infection or vaccination. The paper also described testing of children who received measles vaccination and showed vaccination had no adverse effect on preexisting antibody repertoire.

The scientists stated that it could take months or years to return the immune repertoire back to baseline. During the rebuilding process, children would be at increased risk for infectious diseases they had previously experienced.

In a second outstanding paper, Petrova et al. in Science Immunology studied B cells before and after measles infection, and identified two immunologic consequences: The naive B-cell pool was depleted, leading to a return to immunologic immaturity, and the memory B-cell pool was depleted, resulting in compromised immune memory to previously encountered pathogens.

Thus, the link between measles infections and increased susceptibility to other infections and increased deaths from nonmeasles infectious diseases in the aftermath of measles has been revealed. This information adds new data to share with parents who consider refusing measles vaccination. The risks are far greater than getting measles.

Michael E. Pichichero, MD, is a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases and director of the Research Institute at Rochester (N.Y.) General Hospital. He was asked to comment on the articles. Dr. Pichichero has no conflicts to declare.



Infection with the measles virus appears to reduce immunity to other pathogens, according to a paper published in Science.

A baby with measles CDC/Molly Kurnit, M.P.H.

The hypothesis that the measles virus could cause “immunological amnesia” by impairing immune memory is supported by early research showing children with measles had negative cutaneous tuberculin reactions after having previously tested positive.

“Subsequent studies have shown decreased interferon signaling, skewed cytokine responses, lymphopenia, and suppression of lymphocyte proliferation shortly after infection,” wrote Michael Mina, MD, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and coauthors.

“Given the variation in the degree of immune repertoire modulation we observed, we anticipate that future risk of morbidity and mortality after measles would not be homogeneous but would be skewed toward individuals with the most severe elimination of immunological memory,” they wrote. “These findings underscore the crucial need for continued widespread vaccination.”

In this study, researchers compared the levels of around 400 pathogen-specific antibodies in blood samples from 77 unvaccinated children, taken before and 2 months after natural measles infection, with 5 unvaccinated children who did not contract measles. A total of 34 the children experienced mild measles, and 43 had severe measles.

They found that the samples taken after measles infection showed “substantial” reductions in the number of pathogen epitopes, compared with the samples from children who did not get infected with measles.

This amounted to approximately a 20% mean reduction in overall diversity or size of the antibody repertoire. However, in children who experienced severe measles, there was a median loss of 40% (range, 11%-62%) of antibody repertoire, compared with a median of 33% (range, 12%-73%) range in children who experienced mild infection. Meanwhile, the control subjects retained approximately 90% of their antibody repertoire over a similar or longer time period. Some children lost up to 70% of antibodies for specific pathogens.

The study did find increases in measles virus–specific antigens in children both after measles infection and MMR vaccination. However the authors did not detect any changes in total IgG, IgA, or IgM levels.

“These results suggest that, rather than a simple loss of total IgG, there is a restructuring of the antibody repertoire after measles,” Dr. Mina and associates wrote.

They also noted that controls who received the MMR vaccine showed a marked increase in overall antibody repertoire.

In a separate investigation reported in Science Immunology, Velislava N. Petrova, PhD, of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, and coauthors investigated genetic changes in 26 unvaccinated children from the Netherlands who previously had measles to determine if B-cell impairment can lead to measles-associated immunosuppression. Their antibody genes were sequenced before any symptoms of measles developed and roughly 40 days after rash. Two control groups also were sequenced accordingly: vaccinated adults and three unvaccinated children from the same community who were not infected with measles.

Naive B cells from individuals in the vaccinated and uninfected control groups showed high correlation of immunoglobulin heavy chain (IgVH-J) gene frequencies across time periods (R2 = 0.96 and 0.92, respectively) but no significant differences in gene expression (P greater than .05). At the same time, although B-cell frequencies in measles patients recovered to levels before infection, they had significant changes in IgVH-J gene frequencies (P = .01) and decreased correlation in gene expression (R2 = 0.78).

In addition, individuals in the control groups had “a stable genetic composition of B memory cells” but no significant changes in the third complementarity-determining region (CDR3) lengths or mutational frequency of IgVH-J genes (P greater than .05). B memory cells in measles patients, however, showed increases in mutational frequency (P = .0008) and a reduction in CDR3 length (P = .017) of IgVH genes, Dr. Petrova and associates reported.

The study by Mina et al. was supported by grants from various U.S., European, and Finnish foundations and national organizations. Some of the coauthors had relationships with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, and three reported a patent holding related to technology used in the study. The study by Petrova et al. was funded by grants to the investigators from various Indonesian and German organizations and the Wellcome Trust. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

SOURCES: Mina M et al. Science. 2019 Nov 1;366:599-606; Petrova VN et al. Sci Immunol. 2019 Nov 1. doi: 10.1126/sciimmunol.aay6125.

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