Influenza is the cause of significant morbidity and mortality in pediatric populations. The contribution of pulmonary host defense mechanisms to viral respiratory infection susceptibility in very young children is poorly understood. As a surrogate to compare mucosal immune responses of infant and adult lungs, rhesus monkey primary airway epithelial cell cultures were infected with pandemic influenza A/H1N1 virus in vitro. Virus replication, cytokine secretion, cell viability, and type I interferon (IFN) pathway PCR array profiles were evaluated for both infant and adult cultures. In comparison with adult cultures, infant cultures showed significantly increased levels of H1N1 replication, reduced alpha interferon (IFN-α) protein synthesis, and no difference in cell death following infection. Age-dependent differences in expression levels of multiple genes associated with the type I IFN pathway were observed in H1N1-infected cultures. To investigate the pulmonary and systemic responses to H1N1 infection in early life, infant monkeys were inoculated with H1N1 by upper airway administration. Animals were monitored for virus and parameters of inflammation over a 14-day period. High H1N1 titers were recovered from airways at day 1, with viral RNA remaining detectable until day 9 postinfection. Despite viral clearance, bronchiolitis and alveolitis persisted at day 14 postinfection; histopathological analysis revealed alveolar septal thickening and intermittent type II pneumocyte hyperplasia. Our overall findings are consistent with the known susceptibility of pediatric populations to respiratory virus infection and suggest that intrinsic developmental differences in airway epithelial cell immune function may contribute to the limited efficacy of host defense during early childhood.
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