Blood neutrophil counts in HIV-infected patients with pulmonary tuberculosis: association with sputum mycobacterial load

BACKGROUND: Increasing evidence suggests that neutrophils play a role in the host response to Mycobacterium tuberculosis . We determined whether neutrophil counts in peripheral blood are associated with tuberculosis (TB) and with mycobacterial load in sputum in HIV-infected patients. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Adults enrolling in an antiretroviral treatment (ART) clinic in a Cape Town township were screened for TB regardless of symptoms. Paired sputum samples were examined using liquid culture, fluorescence microscopy, and the Xpert MTB/RIF assay. Absolute neutrophil counts (ANC) were measured in blood samples. Of 602 HIV-infected patients screened, 523 produced one or more sputum samples and had complete results available for analysis. Among these 523 patients, the median CD4 count was 169×10 9 /L (IQR, 96-232) and median ANC was 2.6×10 9 /L (IQR, 1.9-3.6). Culture-positive pulmonary tuberculosis was diagnosed in 89 patients. Patients with TB had a median ANC of 3.4×10 9 /L (IQR, 2.4-5.1) compared to 2.5×10 9 /L (IQR, 1.8-3.4) among those who were culture negative (p<0.0001). In multivariable analyses, having pulmonary TB was associated with an adjusted risk ratio (aRR) of 2.6 (95%CI, 1.5-4.5) for having an ANC level that exceeded the median value (ANC ≥2.6×10 9 /L; p = 0.0006) and an aRR of 6.8 (95%CI, 2.3-20.4) for having neutrophilia defined by a neutrophil count exceeding the upper limit of the normal range (ANC >7.5×10 9 /L; p = 0.0005). Patients were then classified into four mutually exclusive groups with increasing sputum mycobacterial load as defined by the results of culture, Xpert MTB/RIF and sputum smear microscopy. Multivariable analyses demonstrated that increasing sputum mycobacterial load was positively associated with blood ANC ≥2.6×10 9 /L and with neutrophilia. Conclusions/Significance Increased blood neutrophil counts were independently associated with pulmonary TB and sputum mycobacterial burden in this HIV-infected patient group. This observation supports the growing body of literature regarding the potential role for neutrophils in the host response to TB.