An estimated 267 million women worldwide are HSV-2 seropositive, including roughly 20% of reproductive-aged American women. HSV-2 is a neurotropic virus that establishes a persistent, life-long infection that increases risk for STI acquisition in individuals. The vaginal epithelium represents a critical first line of defense against infection, and during acute infection, underlying immune mechanisms in the epithelium may be critical to protect against disease pathogenesis. The recently identified pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-36gamma has been shown to be expressed at mucosal epithelia, including the female reproductive tract (FRT) and may be an important factor in host defense. Although IL-36gamma has been shown to be induced in the FRT after exposure to microbial products, the contributions of IL-36gamma to host defense mechanisms in response to this clinically relevant STI pathogen are not well understood. This dissertation describes the regulation of IL-36gamma in the FRT and explores its contribution to the host response against genital HSV-2 infection.
To test the hypothesis that IL-36gamma is a key regulator of mucosal inflammation and immunity in the FRT, hormonal regulation of IL-36gamma in the FRT was investigated using estrogen- and progesterone-conditioned mice. From this preliminary study, it was shown that progesterone dampens IL36G expression relative to estrogen and may potentially increase susceptibility to infection. Next, the impact of IL-36gamma treatment on HSV-2 infection and replication in human 3-D vaginal epithelial cells was explored. In parallel, the impact of intravaginal IL-36gamma delivery on HSV-2 disease pathogenesis was evaluated using a lethal murine challenge model. IL-36gamma pre-treatment significantly limited HSV-2 replication in vitro and in vivo and was associated with transient neutrophil infiltration that corresponded with decreased disease severity and increased survival in mice. Last, the requirement for IL-36gamma in host defense was investigated utilizing IL-36gamma-/- mice in a lethal HSV-2 murine challenge model. Following infection, IL-36gamma-/- mice exhibited significantly impaired neutrophil recruitment, decreased overall survival time, and significantly increased viral neuroinvasion relative to wild type mice. Collectively, these data indicate that IL-36gamma is a crucial regulator of HSV-2-induced neutrophil infiltration and appears to function in a previously uncharacterized manner to limit viral neuroinvasion in genital HSV-2 disease pathogenesis.