Although evidence suggests that T cells are critical for immunity to malaria, reliable T cell correlates of exposure to and protection from malaria among children living in endemic areas are lacking. We used multiparameter flow cytometry to perform a detailed functional characterization of malaria-specific T cells in 78 four-year-old children enrolled in a longitudinal cohort study in Tororo, Uganda, a highly malaria-endemic region. More than 1800 episodes of malaria were observed in this cohort, with no cases of severe malaria. We quantified production of IFNγ, TNFα, and IL-10 (alone or in combination) by malaria-specific T cells, and analyzed the relationship of this response to past and future malaria incidence. CD4 + T cell responses were measurable in nearly all children, with the majority of children having CD4 + T cells producing both IFNγ and IL-10 in response to malaria-infected red blood cells. Frequencies of IFNγ/IL10 co-producing CD4 + T cells, which express the Th1 transcription factor T-bet, were significantly higher in children with ≥2 prior episodes/year compared to children with <2 episodes/year ( P<0.001) and inversely correlated with duration since malaria ( Rho = −0.39, P<0.001). Notably, frequencies of IFNγ/IL10 co-producing cells were not associated with protection from future malaria after controlling for prior malaria incidence. In contrast, children with <2 prior episodes/year were significantly more likely to exhibit antigen-specific production of TNFα without IL-10 ( P = 0.003). While TNFα-producing CD4 + T cells were not independently associated with future protection, the absence of cells producing this inflammatory cytokine was associated with the phenotype of asymptomatic infection. Together these data indicate that the functional phenotype of the malaria-specific T cell response is heavily influenced by malaria exposure intensity, with IFNγ/IL10 co-producing CD4 + T cells dominating this response among highly exposed children. These CD4 + T cells may play important modulatory roles in the development of antimalarial immunity.
Despite reports of decreasing malaria morbidity across many parts of Africa, the incidence of malaria among children continues to be very high in Uganda, even in the setting of insecticide-treated bednets and artemisinin-based combination therapy. Additional control measures, including a vaccine, are sorely needed in these settings, but progress has been limited by our lack of understanding of immunologic correlates of exposure and protection. T cell responses to malaria are thought to be important for protection in experimental models, but their role in protecting against naturally acquired infection is not clear. In this study, we performed detailed assessments of the malaria-specific T cell response among 4-year-old children living in Tororo, Uganda, an area of high malaria transmission. We found that recent malaria infection induces a malaria-specific immune response dominated by Th1 T cells co-producing IFNγ and IL-10, and that these cells are not associated with protection from future infection. IFNγ/IL-10 co-producing cells have been described in several parasitic infections and are hypothesized to be important in limiting CD4-mediated pathology, but they may also prevent the development of sterilizing immunity. These observations have important implications for understanding the pathophysiology of malaria in humans and for malaria vaccine development.