Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) infection has previously been associated with the production of immunosuppression. The mechanism by which any such immunosuppressive effect might be mediated is unclear but previous work has implicated an effect of the virus on monocytes. We have attempted to characterize the immunosuppressive activity produced by infection of normal monocytes with HCMV strain AD169. We first examined the ability of HCMV AD169 and recent clinical isolates to infect normal peripheral blood mononuclear cells . We have found by immunofluorescence analysis that only a very limited number of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (0.2 to 0.5%) showed evidence of virus infection as demonstrated by expression of the major immediate early protein. We found that the inhibitory activity of supernatants of monocytes exposed to HCMV which suppressed mitogen-driven T cell responsiveness was associated with a protein of about 95K. Experiments to investigate the mechanism of action of this inhibitor suggested the possibility of mycoplasma contamination and we were subsequently able to isolate from our AD169 virus stock. When a series of low passage clinical isolates of HCMV were examined for their ability to cause immunosuppression, there was a direct correlation between suppression and the presence of contaminating mycoplasmas. Using mycoplasma-free isolates of HCMV we could demonstrate no immunosuppressive effect on mitogen-mediated T cell proliferation of both unseparated human peripheral blood lymphocytes and nylon wool non-adherent T cells; these virus isolates also did not suppress accessory cell function or interleukin 1 production by monocytes infected . We conclude that the previously reported immunosuppressive effects of HCMV may be attributable to the presence of mycoplasmas and are unlikely to be due to expression of HCMV in monocytes. We suggest that mycoplasma contamination of isolates of HCMV may be a more extensive problem than is currently recognized.


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