Chronic hyperreactive onchodermatitis (sowda) is a severe form of onchocerciasis observed in a subset of individuals infected with the filarial nematode Onchocerca volvulus. SDS-PAGE and immunoblot analyses of O. volvulus adult worm extracts were used to characterize the antigens of the marked antibody response of sowda patients. One 2.5-kD antigen was recognized by sera from all 35(100%) sowda patients that were studied. In comparison, only 7 of 44 (16%) patients with generalized onchocerciasis and 11 of 21 (52%) of exposed individuals with no microfilariae in skin snips and no signs of disease showed reactivity to this antigen. Microfilaricidal treatment of sowda patients with improvement of the clinical status was associated with a decrease or disappearance of antibodies to the 2.5-kD antigen. Amino acid sequencing of the antigen indicated identity to human defensins 1-3 of neutrophils. Defensin was demonstrated by immunohistochemical staining in onchocercal nodules on the surface of adult filariae and in the surrounding tissue. A similar staining pattern was observed for other proteins present in neutrophils such as myeloperoxidase, elastase, and the L-1 protein complex (MRP 8/MRP 14), indicating that neutrophils, macrophages, and their proteins predominate in the environment adjacent to the worms. These results demonstrate an association between the presence of autoantibodies to defensins and an infectious disease of known etiology. The association with a particular form of onchocerciasis, sowda, suggests a link between formation of autoantibodies to defensin and enhanced immune reactivity towards the parasite.

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