Although widely associated with various inflammatory diseases, mast cells have an evolutionarily conserved role in host defence and have been shown to make functional contributions to immunity to a broad range of pathogens including bacteria, parasites and possibly viruses.
Functioning as sentinels, mast cells quickly recognize pathogens during primary and subsequent infections through various direct and indirect receptors, including Toll-like receptors, receptors for endogenous host by-products of inflammation and Fc receptors, which can bind pathogens through high-affinity antibody-mediated interactions.
Mast cells have the potential to be the first responding cell type at a site of infection owing to their ability to degranulate in response to many signs of inflammation and infection and release preformed mediators within seconds of activation.
A key function of mast cells during infection is to communicate with many cell types, such as dendritic cells, lymphocytes, neutrophils, macrophages, epithelial cells, endothelial cells and neural cells, both locally at a site of infection and in distant tissues such as lymph nodes.
Mast cells act as catalysts for immune responses to pathogens, enhancing the speed and magnitude of both innate and adaptive immune responses, and they can also influence the character of responses by producing unique factors depending on the type of pathogen challenge. These qualities also make them effective targets to enhance immune responses to vaccine antigens.
Unique attributes of mast cells, including their abilities to survive after activation, replenish their granules, replicate at sites of inflammation and bind pathogen-specific antibodies after a primary response, highlight their potential to contribute to immunological memory, which may influence host responses to chronic or secondary infections.
Although mast cells were discovered more than a century ago, their functions beyond their role in allergic responses remained elusive until recently. However, there is a growing appreciation that an important physiological function of these cells is the recognition of pathogens and modulation of appropriate immune responses. Because of their ability to instantly release several pro-inflammatory mediators from intracellular stores and their location at the host–environment interface, mast cells have been shown to be crucial for optimal immune responses during infection. Mast cells seem to exert these effects by altering the inflammatory environment after detection of a pathogen and by mobilizing various immune cells to the site of infection and to draining lymph nodes. Interestingly, the character and timing of these responses can vary depending on the type of pathogen stimulus, location of pathogen recognition and sensitization state of the responding mast cells. Recent studies using mast cell activators as effective vaccine adjuvants show the potential of harnessing these cells to confer protective immunity against microbial pathogens.
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The authors' work is supported by the US National Institutes of Health grants R01 AI35678, R01 DK077159, R01 AI50021, R37 DK50814 and R21 AI056101. We thank M. M. Ng and H. Yap of the National University of Singapore for their help in acquiring the image in Fig. 1a and Z. Swan for reviewing the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Abraham, S., St. John, A. Mast cell-orchestrated immunity to pathogens. Nat Rev Immunol 10, 440–452 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nri2782
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