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Therapeutic relevance of penicillin-induced hypersensitivity of Staphylococcus aureus to killing by polymorphonuclear leukocytes.

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  • Research Article
  • Medicine


There is an overwhelming body of evidence that certain Staphylococcus aureus strains become more sensitive to killing by polymorphonuclear leukocytes after their growth in media containing subinhibitory concentrations of penicillin. However, it is not clear to what extent this phenomenon contributes to the curative effect of penicillin in vivo. To explore its therapeutic relevance, we evaluated the interaction of staphylococci pretreated with penicillin in vitro with leukocytes in cell-proof diffusion chambers (porosity, 0.22 micron) implanted subcutaneously in rabbits. Under this in vivo environment, staphylococci pretreated with penicillin remained hypersensitive to leukocyte killing as under in vitro conditions. Furthermore, when the staphylococci were mixed with the leukocytes in chambers implanted intraperitoneally in mice which subsequently received intravenously a suboptimal dose of penicillin, they also became hypersensitive to leukocytic killing. However, because the staphylococcal growth rate was considerably reduced in vivo, the degree of penicillin-induced sensitivity to leukocytic killing was smaller than that obtained in test tube cultures; nevertheless, the enhanced killing was significant. Additional support that the curative effect of penicillin partly depends on its synergistic action with the leukocytes was provided by the relative decrease in virulence of staphylococci pretreated with penicillin in mice in which the cellular host defenses were already recruited at the focus of inoculation. These observations indicate that penicillin-induced hypersensitivity of staphylococci to leukocytic killing is not only an in vitro phenomenon, but an effect which has therapeutic relevance.

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