Recent studies have suggested that virulent strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis induce apoptosis in macrophages less often than do attenuated strains. K-strain, which belongs to the Beijing family, is the most frequently isolated clinical strain of M. tuberculosis in Korea. In this study, we investigated the differential induction of cell death in human monocytic THP-1 cells by K-strain and H37Rv, a virulent but laboratory-adapted strain of M. tuberculosis. Although no significant difference in growth rate was observed between the cells exposed to K-strain and those exposed to H37Rv, the levels of protective cytokines such as tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α, interleukin (IL)-6 and IL-12p40 were lower in K-strain-infected cells than in H37Rv-infected cells. Cell viability assays showed that both K-strain and H37Rv, but not heat- or streptomycin-killed bacteria, induced THP-1 cell death in a TNF-independent manner. In contrast, double staining with fluorochrome-labelled inhibitors of caspase and propidium iodide and lactate dehydrogenase release assays revealed that K-strain induced significantly higher levels of necrotic cell death, rather than apoptosis, in THP-1 cells than did H37Rv. Anti-apoptotic Bcl-2, Mcl-1, Bfl-1 and Bcl-xL in the cells were significantly upregulated following infection with K-strain compared with H37Rv, whereas Bax was slightly upregulated in response to infection with both H37Rv and K-strain. These results suggest that the highly virulent K-strain keeps cellular apoptosis as a host defense mechanism to a minimum and induces necrosis in macrophages.
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