Leishmania amastigotes parasitize almost exclusively the mononuclear phagocytes of mammals. The organisms survive and multiply within acidified vacuoles (parasitophorous vacuoles; p.v.) akin to phagolysosomes. Certain amino acid esters are known to accumulate in and disrupt lysosomes. We postulated that, since Leishmania possess lysosome-like organelles, they may be susceptible to the potentially high ester concentrations attained in the p.v. We report here that L-amino acid esters can rapidly destroy intracellular Leishmania at concentrations that do not appear to damage the host cells. L-leu-OMe, which cured greater than or equal to 90% of infected macrophages at 0.8 mM concentrations, was used in most of the experiments. L-leu-OMe was only active after infection, implying inefficient transfer from secondary lysosomes to the p.v. Parasite destruction had several features in common with lysosomal and leukocyte damage induced by the esters, i.e., inactivity of D-amino acid esters, a marked pH dependence and increased killing after ester pulses at lower temperatures. Killing depended on the amino acid and on the ester substitution. The most active of the methyl esters assayed was that of leucine, followed by those of tryptophan, glutamic acid, methionine, phenylalanine, and tyrosine. Methyl esters of seven other amino acids were inactive when tested at up to 10 mM concentrations. Among leucine esters studied, benzyl ester was sixfold more active than the methyl homolog. The dipeptide L-leu-leu-OMe produced 90% cure at 0.08 mM concentrations. Leishmanicidal activity could be related to penetration of the parasites by the esters or to toxic ester hydrolysis products released in the p.v. The first hypothesis is supported by the pH-dependent destruction of isolated amastigotes by the esters. Furthermore, relatively high concentrations of L-leucine, methanol, or benzyl alcohol were not demonstrably toxic to the amastigotes. We postulate that ester concentrations sufficient to damage the intracellular amastigotes may be obtained within the p.v. after exposure of infected macrophages to the esters. Esters preferentially hydrolyzed by parasite enzymes may be expected to be leishmanicidal, but less damaging to the host.

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