- Research article
- Open Access
Pneumococcal colonization and invasive disease studied in a porcine model
© The Author(s). 2016
- Received: 10 July 2015
- Accepted: 30 May 2016
- Published: 8 June 2016
Streptococcus pneumoniae, a Gram-positive bacterium carried in the human nasopharynx, is an important human pathogen causing mild diseases such as otitis media and sinusitis as well as severe diseases including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis. There is a strong resemblance between the anatomy, immunology and physiology of the pig and human species. Furthermore, there are striking similarities between S. suis pathogenesis in piglets and S. pneumoniae pathogenesis in humans. Therefore, we investigated the use of piglets as a model for pneumococcal colonization and invasive disease.
Intravenous inoculation of piglets with an invasive pneumococcal isolate led to bacteraemia during 5 days, showing clear bacterial replication in the first two days. Bacteraemia was frequently associated with fever and septic arthritis. Moreover, intranasal inoculation of piglets with a nasopharyngeal isolate led to colonization for at least six consecutive days.
This demonstrates that central aspects of human pneumococcal infections can be modelled in piglets enabling the use of this model for studies on colonization and transmission but also on development of vaccines and host-directed therapies. Moreover this is the first example of an animal model inducing high levels of pneumococcal septic arthritis.
- Streptococcus pneumoniae
- Animal model
Streptococcus pneumoniae is a Gram positive bacterium carried in the nasopharynx and spread by human-to-human transmission causing different diseases ranging from mild, such as otitis media and sinusitis, to severe diseases, including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis [1, 2]. Furthermore, S. pneumoniae is an important cause of septic arthritis , and endocarditis . Asymptomatic colonization of the nasopharynx is an essential prerequisite for pneumococcal disease. Worldwide about 40-90 % of children and 10 % of adults are colonized with S. pneumoniae . Risk groups for pneumococcal disease are children under the age of 2 years, elderly people and immunocompromised patients . Morbidity and mortality caused by S. pneumoniae infections are high, both in the developing and the developed world: annually 1.6 million people die worldwide of pneumococcal infections .
Since pigs are very similar to humans in terms of anatomy, immunology and physiology  they might be a good model to mimic human disease. More importantly, the porcine immune system closely resembles that of the human immune system for over 80 % of the analyzed parameters, whereas for mice this is less than 10 % . For example the porcine complement activation is similar to that of humans in all pathways  and pigs have Th17 cells with functions similar to their human counterparts . Moreover, the cardiovascular physiology of pigs and men are very similar, indicating that pig models could be used to study the effects of S. pneumoniae on the cardiovascular system. Pigs have been described as suitable models for human infectious diseases of different nature, like Gram-negative bacteria induced meningitis  and pneumonia , Gram-positive bacteria induced endocarditis , scabies infections  and fungal infections . Moreover, the availability of a large animal model allows to do repeated measurements, for example colonization can be monitored in time without killing the animal.
Piglets are the natural host for Streptococcus suis infections. There are striking similarities between S. suis pathogenesis in piglets and S. pneumoniae pathogenesis in humans. Piglets develop severe disease like meningitis, sepsis, arthritis, endocarditis or pneumonia upon infection with S. suis . S. suis is carried in the oropharynx, the bacterium colonizes the tonsil of piglets, similar to S. pneumoniae in children . Furthermore, genetically S. suis and S. pneumoniae are closely related . In this study, we investigate the use of piglets as a model for human colonization and invasive disease caused by S. pneumoniae. We demonstrate that the pig is a suitable model to study pneumococcal colonization and invasive disease that could potentially be used for the development of new vaccines and therapies.
Fever and pro-inflammatory cytokine responses
Septic arthritis in piglets due to Streptococcus pneumoniae
Maximum number of joints affected
Number of days with 1 or more arthritic joints
Here we demonstrate that pigs can be used as a model for human S. pneumoniae infections. Induction of pneumococcal bacteraemia results in persistent fever and disease, mainly septic arthritis. Systemic pro-inflammatory immune responses confirm the presence of pneumococcal induced inflammation in piglets. Moreover, we showed that S. pneumoniae is able to colonize the oropharyngeal cavity of piglets, allowing for colonization and transmission studies.
Stable oropharyngeal colonization of piglets with S. pneumoniae was determined by qPCR on tonsillar swab samples. Selective culturing of S. pneumoniae using gentamycin was not possible in pigs due to overgrowth of many different organisms, making it impossible to specifically count pneumococcal CFU. Despite the complex microbiome of porcine tonsils, consisting of more than 100 species [22, 23] including S. suis, it is apparently possible for S. pneumoniae to find its niche leading to colonization for at least 6 days. This enables the study of colonization as a function of time. Currently, many research groups concentrate on the development of a universal serotype-independent vaccine, based on pneumococcal proteins . There is a lot of experience with vaccination challenge experiments in pigs with porcine pathogens with a similar pathogenesis as S. pneumoniae in humans, like S. suis [25, 26]. The piglet model described here may be an attractive alternative to study the efficacy of vaccine candidates, in particular at the level of colonization.
A significant number of intravenously inoculated piglets in this study developed arthritis. In humans  invasive disease caused by S. pneumoniae mainly leads to meningitis and sepsis. However, in humans S. pneumoniae can also cause septic arthritis . Although human pneumococcal septic arthritis is less frequently observed it has been described as an emerging problem . So far, an animal model inducing high levels of pneumococcal septic arthritis was not available.
Pneumococcal septic arthritis is often accompanied by a serum leukocytosis of > 11 × 109 cells liter−1. Systemically infected piglets also showed a serum leukocytosis, where WBC counts > 34 × 109 cells liter−1 were observed. The occurrence of arthritis after S. suis infection is very common in pigs, arthritis is often the first clinical symptom that is observed . The different outcome of clinical disease caused by S. pneumoniae in humans and piglets might be due to the species barrier. Experimental S. pneumoniae models used doses ranging from 105 in human colonization studies [19, 29] to 2 × 106 in insects  and 5 × 106 – 5 × 107 in rodent models [31–33]. In this piglet model we used a dose of 2.5 × 106 CFU (low) and 2.9 × 108 CFU (high). The pneumococcal isolate used for intravenous infection in this study was obtained from a patient that suffered from pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis. Apparently in piglets the pathogenesis have steered towards arthritis, instead of to the development of meningitis. However, it cannot be excluded that another human pneumococcal isolate could also cause meningitis in piglets, with or without arthritis.
Taken together, the data presented in the study demonstrate that central aspects of human pneumococcal infections can be modelled in piglets. Piglets can be very useful hosts for studies on mechanisms of colonization and invasive disease of S. pneumoniae infections as well as on the development of improved pneumococcal vaccines. Moreover this is the first example of an animal model inducing high levels of pneumococcal septic arthritis.
Twenty piglets (breed: Topigs 20) were purchased from a pre-screened farm with a defined microbiological porcine pathogen free status and were housed at the animal facilities of the Central Veterinary Institute with ad libitum access to water and feed. At the start of the experiment tonsil swabs of piglets were screened for the presence of S. suis. Animals negative for the most prevalent serotypes were selected. After an acclimatization period of 7 days, piglets were inoculated with S. pneumoniae at the age of 5 weeks, either intravenously (10 pigs) or intranasally (10 pigs), using two different doses. Intravenously inoculated piglets were injected with 1 ml of PBS containing either 4.2 × 106 colony forming units (CFU) (low dose) or 2.9 × 108 CFU (high dose) of S. pneumoniae strain PBCN214 into the vena jugularis. To establish colonization, piglets were inoculated intranasally by using 3 ml of PBS containing either 2.5 × 106 CFU (low dose) or 2.9 × 108 CFU (high dose) of S. pneumoniae BHN418 . Therefore, aerosols of the inocula were produced by a commercial, gravity-fed, single trigger airbrush (Evolution™, Harder & Steenbeek) with a nozzle of 0.2 millimeter, creating an aerosol with about 10 % droplets which are smaller than 26 micrometer and about 50 % of droplets which are smaller than 50 micrometer in diameter.
Monitoring the health status
To monitor the health status of piglets, body temperatures and clinical scores were systematically recorded 3 times a day, starting at 3 days before inoculation to record baseline levels. Swelling of joints, particularly carpal, tarsal and knee joints and occurring lameness were assessed and interpreted as arthritis. Pigs were restraint and blood was collected from the jugular vein on a daily basis starting 3 days before inoculation to monitor white blood cell counts (WBC), bacteraemia and to collect plasma. WBCs were counted using an automated cell counter (Sysmex, pocH-100iV-diff), including differentiation of blood cells.
Monitoring infection by cultivation, MALDI-TOF and PCR analysis
Bacteraemia was monitored daily by plating 100 μl of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) blood directly onto Columbia agar containing 5 % sheep blood and 5 μg ml−1 gentamycin. Plates were incubated for 16 h at 37 °C and colonies were counted. Bacteria isolated from blood were confirmed to be S. pneumoniae using the direct smear method on Bruker MALDI Biotyper Microflex V.3.1, with the Bruker taxonomy database (4613 entries). To obtain plasma, EDTA blood was centrifuged for 15 min at 2500 × g. Plasma was stored at −20 °C for subsequent analyses. Tonsil and nasal swabs were collected daily, starting from day 0, to monitor colonization of S. pneumoniae. Swabs were placed in 3 ml of sterile PBS containing 15 % glycerol and sonicated in a water bath (Ultrasonic Cleaner, VWR symphony) at room temperature for 90 min. to elute bacteria from the swabs. Subsequently, the material was stored at–20 °C for subsequent analyses.
Animals were sacrificed at 7 days post-infection or when pigs reached predefined humane end points. All piglets were subjected to necropsy. During necropsy, samples from the nasal mucosa, tonsils, lungs at 6 locations, internal organs (peritoneum, liver, kidney, spleen, thorax, heart), and brain were taken for bacteriological examination. For this purpose, tissue was homogenized and serial dilutions were plated for enumeration. Affected organs were formalin fixed for histological examination. Formalin fixed organ material was embedded in paraffin, sectioned at 3 − 5 micrometer, and subsequently stained with haematoxylin and eosin. Sections were microscopically screened for pathological changes. Pro-inflammatory immune responses were determined using commercial Quantikine ® Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) kits for porcine Il-1-β and porcine IL-6 (R&D systems) according to instructions of the manufacturer.
Quantification of pneumococcal DNA by qPCR
Pneumococcal DNA in tonsil and nasal swabs was determined by amplification of part of the autolysin (lytA) gene using qPCR (lytA-Fw: 5′-ACGCAATCTAGCAGATGAAGCA-3′; lytA-Rev: 5′-TCGTGCGTTTTAATTCCAGCT-3′). The 20 μl PCR mix consisted of 1× SsoAdvanced Universal SYBR Green Supermix (Biorad), 4 pmol of each primer, and 1 μl of the extracted DNA. Thermal cycling was performed in a CFX Real-time PCR system (Biorad) under the following cycling conditions: 3 min at 95 °C, and 40 cycles of 10 sec at 95 °C and 30 sec at 55 °C. A qPCR signal above 35 cycles was considered negative. Additionally the qPCR mix contained 4 pmol of probe 5′-(FAM)-GCCGAAAACGCTTGATACAGGGAG-(BHQI)-3′ . A standard curve of a ten-fold dilution series of genomic DNA extracted from S. pneumoniae BHN418, extracted with Qiagen columns and quantified with a spectrophotometer (Nanodrop) was used to calculate the amount of pneumococcal DNA per swab.
(q) PCR, (quantitative) polymerase chain reaction; CFU, Colony forming units; EDTA, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid; ELISA, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay; IL-1, β–interleukin 1 beta; IL-6, interleukin 6; lytA, autolysin gene; MALDI-TOF, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization–time of flight; p.i. – post-inoculation; WBC, white blood cell counts
The authors would like to acknowledge the personnel of Animal Facilities of Central Veterinary Institute, as well as Ralph Kok, Pieter Roskam and Fred van Opzeeland who assisted during necropsy on piglets for their invaluable assistance during the experiments described in this manuscript. The authors would like to acknowledge Dr. Marc Bracke for his help in determining playing behaviour of piglets and Dr. Hester Bootsma and Dr. Amelieke Cremers for the selection of the pneumococcal strains.
No funding was obtained for this study.
Availability of data and materials
All data supporting our findings is contained within the manuscript.
AG designed the study, performed experiments and drafted the manuscript; SS designed the study, performed experiments and drafted the manuscript; HB assisted in the animal experiment; JFH participated in bacteriological and immunological analyses; RNT participated in the animal experiment; QM assisted in study design and drafting the paper; AJV supervised the experiments; NSZ supervised the animal experiment, performed pathological observations and helped drafting the manuscript; MIJ designed the study and drafted the manuscript; HES conceived the study, participated in the animal experiment and drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved the manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent to publish
Ethics and consent to participate
The animal experiment was approved by the Ethical Committee of the Central Veterinary Institute of Wageningen UR (The Netherlands), in accordance with the Dutch law on animal experiments (permit number 2014004b).
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