Tuberculosis pathophysiology

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Mashal Awais, M.D.[2], João André Alves Silva, M.D. [3]


Transmission of M. tuberculosis occurs when individuals with active pulmonary disease cough, speak, sneeze or sing expelling the infectious droplets. The mycobacterium tuberculosis favors the upper lung lobes due to the high oxygen level. Tuberculosis is a prototypical granulomatous infection. The granuloma surrounds the mycobacteria and prevents their dissemination and facilitates the immune cell interaction. Within the granuloma, CD4 T lymphocytes release chemokines that activate local macrophages and recruit other immune cells..


Transmission of M. tuberculosis occurs when individuals with active pulmonary disease cough, speak, sneeze or sing expelling the infectious droplets that can pass to the terminal bronchioles and alveoli then phagocytosed by alveolar macrophages where they can replicate in the endosomes of alveolar macrophages. As a part of the immune response by these macrophages, the alveolar macrophages release cytokines that recruits further macrophages, neutrophils, and monocytes, surrounding the bacilli. Despite having a very low infectious dose (ID<200 bacteria), 90% of the infected immunocompetent individuals are asymptomatic. In most cases, the bacteria may either be eliminated or enclosed within a granuloma. The granuloma is a structured, radial aggregation of macrophages, epithelioid cells, T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, and fibroblasts that prevents the spreading of mycobacteria and enhances interaction of the immune cells.[1] The primary site of infection in the lung is called the Ghon focus that is mainly located in either the upper part of the lower lobe, or the lower part of the upper lobe.[1][2]

Primary Infection

The infected macrophages are transported through the lymphatics to the regional lymph nodes in the immunocompetent individuals. However, with impaired immune response, these macrophages can pass through the bloodstream to enter any part of the body. Those foci of primary infection usually resolve without any consequences, but they can act as a foci of M. tuberculosis dissemination. There are particular organs that are more susceptible to bacterial replication as well as being potential metastatic foci which include:[1][2]

Although TB is a systemic disease and all organs can be affected, the heart, pancreas, skeletal muscles and thyroid are rarely involved.[3] In a few cases, when the infectious dose is high and antigens concentration in the primary focus is high, the immune response and hypersensitivity can lead to necrosis and calcification of this lesion, and these primary calcified foci are then called Ranke complex.[1][4]

Progression of the Primary Infection

Primary foci of infection can enter the large pulmonary lymph nodes. These may lead to:[1]

  • In non-caucasian children, elderly patients and HIV/AIDS, the immune response is impaired, consequently the primary focus of infection can deteriorate into progressive primary disease, with advancing pneumonia.
  • In young children, the onset of immune response may be delayed after the bacterial dissemination resulting in military tuberculosis. Bacteria can spread directly from the primary focus, or from the Weigart focus (metastatic focus adjacent to a pulmonary vein) through the blood.[1][7]


There are two types of immune response against tuberculosis that include the innate and acquired immune responses. However, the cell-mediated immune response predominates over the humoral type.

Innate Immune Response

Initially, The immune response generated against M. tuberculosis is minimal, enabling it to replicate inside the alveolar macrophages forming the Ghon focus, or metastatic foci. Recognition and phagocytosis of the M. tuberculosis bacilli by the alveolar macrophages occurs through interaction with certain receptors that are located on the surface of macrophages:[8]

Acquired Immunity and Granuloma Formation

Following inhalation of contaminated aerosols, M. Tuberculosis moves to the lower respiratory tract where it is recognized by alveolar macrophages. This recognition is mediated by a set of surface receptors (see text), which drive the uptake of the bacteria and trigger innate immune signaling pathways leading to the production of various chemokines and cytokines (a). Epithelial cells and neutrophils can also produce chemokines in response to bacterial products (not represented). This promotes the recruitment of other immune cells (more macrophages, dendritic cells, and lymphocytes) to the infection site (b). They organize in a spherical structure with infected macrophages in the middle surrounded by various categories of lymphocytes (mainly CD4+, CD8+, and γ/δ T cells). Macrophages (MP) can fuse to form MGCs or differentiate into lipid-rich foamy cells (FM). B lymphocytes tend to aggregate in follicular-type structures adjacent to the granuloma ((c), see text for details). The bacteria can survive for decades inside the granuloma in a latent state. Due to some environmental (e.g., HIV infection, malnutrition, etc.) or genetic factors, the bacteria will reactivate and provoke the death of the infected macrophages. A necrotic zone (called caseum due to its milky appearance) will develop in the center of the granuloma (d). Ultimately the structure will disintegrate allowing the exit of the bacteria, which will spread in other parts of the lungs, and more lesions will be formed. The infection will also be transmitted to other individuals due to the release of the infected droplets by coughing (e).[9]

Molecular Pathogenesis


Once within alveolar macrophages, M. tuberculosis uses multiple mechanisms in order to survive:[1]


After contact with a patient having the active TB, and inhalation of the M. tuberculosis, the risk of developing active tuberculosis is low with a life-time risk of about 10%.[12] The probability of transmission between individuals depends on the number of expelled infectious droplets the ventilation, the duration of the exposure, immunity, and the virulence of the M. tuberculosis strain.[13] The probability of transmitting the infection is highest during the first years of getting the infection. After that, it decreases.[14]

In rare occasions, the mycobacteria can be transmitted by other ways apart from the respiratory route in which, the formation of foci in the regional lymph nodes frequently occurs. Those routes include:[1]

Associated Conditions


  • HIV infected patients, particularly those having low CD4 lymphocytes counts, are more likely to develop reactivation of latent tuberculosis. Moreover, when an individual has been recently infected with M. tuberculosis, they progress rapidly into active disease.[1][16][17] The correlation between AIDS and the risk of TB infection is still not fully understood.[1]

Patients with AIDS are more prone to get pulmonary and extrapulmonary tuberculosis. Extrapulmonary disease in AIDS patients has characteristic manifestations, such as:[1]



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