Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Michel Gilliet, MD

Committee Member

Stephen E. Ullrich, PhD

Committee Member

Chen Dong, PhD

Committee Member

Tomasz Zal, PhD

Committee Member

Sattva S. Neelapu, MD


Innate immune recognition of extracellular host-derived self-DNA and self-RNA is prevented by endosomal seclusion of the Toll-like receptors (TLRs) in the dendritic cells (DCs). However, in psoriasis plasmacytoid dendritic cells have been found to be able to sense self-DNA molecules in complex with the endogenous cationic antimicrobial peptide LL37, which are internalized into the endosomal compartments and thus can access TLR9. We investigated whether this endogenous peptide can also interact with extracellular self-RNA and lead to DC activation. We found that LL37 binds self-RNA as well as self-DNA going into an electrostatic interaction; forms micro-aggregates of nano-scale particles protected from enzymatic degradation and transport it into the endosomal compartments of both plasmacytoid and myeloid dendritic cells. In the plasmacytoid DCs, the self-RNA-LL37 complexes activate TLR7 and like the self-DNA-LL37 complexes, trigger the production of IFN-α in the absence of induction of maturation or production of IL-6 and TNF-α. In contrast to the self-DNA-LL37 complexes, the self-RNA-LL37 complexes are also internalized into the endosomal compartments of myeloid dendritic cells and trigger activation through TLR8, leading to the production of TNF-α and IL-6, and the maturation of the myeloid DCs.

Furthermore, we found that these self nucleic acid-LL37 complexes can be found in vivo in the skin lesions of the cutaneous autoimmune disease psoriasis, where they are associated with mature mDCs in situ. On the other hand, in the systemic autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus, self-DNA-LL37 complexes were found to be a constituent of the circulating immune complexes isolated from patient sera. This interaction between the endogenous peptide with the self nucleic acid molecules present in the immune complexes was found to be electrostatic and it confers resistance to enzymatic degradation of the nucleic acid molecules in the immune complexes. Moreover, autoantibodies to these endogenous peptides were found to trigger neutrophil activation and release of neutrophil extracellular traps composed of DNA, which are potential sources of the self nucleic acid-LL37 complexes present in SLE immune complexes. Our results demonstrate that the cationic antimicrobial peptide LL37 drives the innate immune recognition of self nucleic acid molecules through toll-like receptors in human dendritic cells, thus elucidating a pathway for innate sensing of host cell death. This pathway of autoreactivity was found to be pathologically relevant in human autoimmune diseases psoriasis and SLE, and thus this study provides new insights into the mechanisms autoimmune diseases.


pDC, DNA, RNA, LL37, dendritic cells, TLR, psoriasis



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