Searching for new effective drugs against human and animal toxoplasmosis we decided to test the anti-Toxoplasma potential of phytoecdysteroids (α-ecdysone and 20-hydroxyecdysone) characterized by the pleiotropic activity on mammalian organisms including the enhancement of host's anti-parasitic defence. This objective was accomplished by the in vitro evaluation of T. gondii growth in phytoecdysteroid-treated immunocompetent cells of selected hosts: humans and two strains of inbred mice with genetically determined different susceptibility to toxoplasmosis.
Peripheral mononuclear blood cells were isolated from Toxoplasma-positive and Toxoplasma-negative women (N = 43) and men (N = 21). Non-infected mice (C57BL/6, N = 10 and BALB/c, N = 14) and mice (BALB/c, N = 10) challenged intraperitoneally with 5 tissue cysts of the T. gondii DX strain were also used in this study as a source of splenocytes. The effects of phytoecdysteroids on the viability of human PBMC and mouse splenocytes were evaluated using the MTT assay. The influence of phytoecdysteroids on PBMCs, splenocytes and T. gondii proliferation was measured using radioactivity tests (the level of 3[H] uracil incorporation by toxoplasms or 3[H] thymidine by PBMCs and splenocytes), which was confirmed by quantitative Real-Time PCR. Statistical analysis was performed using SigmaStat 3.5 (Systat Software GmbH). The best-fit IC50 curves were plotted using GraphPad Prism 6.0 (GraphPad Software, Inc.).
Our results showed that phytoecdysteroids promote the multiplication of Toxoplasma in cultures of human or murine immune cells, in contrast to another apicomplexan parasite, Babesia gibsoni. Additionally, the tested phytoecdysteroids did not stimulate the in vitro secretion of the essential protective cytokines (IFN-γ, IL-2 and IL-10), neither by human nor by murine immune cells involved in an effective intracellular killing of the parasite.
Judging by the effect of phytoecdysteroids on the T. gondii proliferation, demonstrated for the first time in this study, it seems that these compounds should not be taken into consideration as potential medications to treat toxoplasmosis. Phytoecdysteroids included in the food are most likely not harmful for human or animal health but certain nutrients containing ecdysteroids at high concentrations could promote T. gondii proliferation in chronically infected and immunocompromised individuals. In order to assess the real impact of ecdysteroids on the course of natural T. gondii invasion, in vivo research should be undertaken because it cannot be ruled out that the in vivo effect will be different than the in vitro one. However, taking into account the possible stimulating effect of ecdysteroids on some opportunistic parasites (such as Toxoplasma or Strongyloides) further studies are necessary and should focus on the mechanisms of their action, which directly or indirectly enhance the parasite growth. Since ecdysteroids are considered as potential drugs, it is essential to determine their effect on various parasitic pathogens, which may infect the host at the same time, especially in immunocompromised individuals.