Rhodococcus equi is an opportunistic pathogen in immunocompromised humans and an important primary pathogen in young horses. Although R. equi infection can produce life-threatening pyogranulomatous pneumonia, most foals develop a protective immune response that lasts throughout life. The antigen targets of this protective response are currently unknown; however, Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a closely related intracellular pathogen and provides a model system. Based on previous studies of M. tuberculosis protective antigens released into culture filtrate supernatant (CFS), a bacterial growth system was developed for obtaining R. equi CFS antigens. Potential immunogens for prevention of equine rhodococcal pneumonia were identified by using immunoblots. The 48-h CFS contained five virulence-associated protein bands that migrated between 12 and 24 kDa and were recognized by sera from R. equi-infected foals and immune adult horses. Notably, the CFS contained the previously characterized proteins VapC, VapD, and VapE, which are encoded by genes on the R. equi virulence plasmid. R. equi CFS was also examined for the ability to stimulate a type 1-like memory response in immune horses. Three adult horses were challenged with virulent R. equi, and cells from the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid were recovered before and 1 week after challenge. In vitro stimulation of pulmonary T-lymphocytes with R. equi CFS resulted in significant proliferation and a significant increase in gamma interferon mRNA expression 1 week after challenge. These results were consistent with a memory effector response in immune adult horses and provide evidence that R. equi CFS proteins are antigen targets in the immunoprotective response against R. equi infection.
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