Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that engulfs and digests cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and anything else that does not have the types of proteins specific of healthy body cells on its surface in a process called phagocytosis.
These large phagocytes are found in essentially all tissues, where they patrol for potential pathogens by amoeboid movement. They take various forms (with various names) throughout the body (e.g., histiocytes, Kupffer cells, alveolar macrophages, microglia, and others), but all are part of the mononuclear phagocyte system.
Besides phagocytosis, they play a critical role in nonspecific defense (innate immunity) and also help initiate specific defense mechanisms (adaptive immunity) by recruiting other immune cells such as lymphocytes.
For example, they are important as antigen presenters to T cells. In humans, dysfunctional macrophages cause severe diseases such as chronic granulomatous disease that result in frequent infections.
Beyond increasing inflammation and stimulating the immune system, macrophages also play an important anti-inflammatory role and can decrease immune reactions through the release of cytokines. Macrophages that encourage inflammation are called M1 macrophages, whereas those that decrease inflammation and encourage tissue repair are called M2 macrophages.
This difference is reflected in their metabolism; M1 macrophages have the unique ability to metabolize arginine to the “killer” molecule nitric oxide, whereas rodent M2 macrophages have the unique ability to metabolize arginine to the “repair” molecule ornithine.
Human macrophages are about 21 micrometres (0.00083 in) in diameter and are produced by the differentiation of monocytes in tissues. They can be identified using flow cytometry or immunohistochemical staining by their specific expression of proteins such as CD14, CD40, CD11b, CD64, F4/80 (mice)/EMR1 (human), lysozyme M, MAC-1/MAC-3 and CD68.
Macrophages were first discovered by Élie Metchnikoff, a Russian zoologist, in 1884.
Macrophages are professional phagocytes and are highly specialized in removal of dying or dead cells and cellular debris. This role is important in chronic inflammation, as the early stages of inflammation are dominated by neutrophils, which are ingested by macrophages if they come of age.
The neutrophils are at first attracted to a site, where they proliferate, before they are phagocytized by the macrophages. When at the site, the first wave of neutrophils, after the process of aging and after the first 48 hours, stimulate the appearance of the macrophages whereby these macrophages will then ingest the aged neutrophils.
The removal of dying cells is, to a greater extent, handled by fixed macrophages, which will stay at strategic locations such as the lungs, liver, neural tissue, bone, spleen and connective tissue, ingesting foreign materials such as pathogens and recruiting additional macrophages if needed.
When a macrophage ingests a pathogen, the pathogen becomes trapped in a phagosome, which then fuses with a lysosome. Within the phagolysosome, enzymes and toxic peroxides digest the pathogen. However, some bacteria, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, have become resistant to these methods of digestion.
Typhoidal Salmonellae too induce their own phagocytosis by host macrophages in vivo, and inhibit digestion by lysosomal action, thereby use macrophages to replicate and cause macrophage apoptosis. Macrophages can digest more than 100 bacteria before they finally die due to their own digestive compounds.
Role In Adaptive Immunity
Macrophages are versatile cells that play many roles. As scavengers, they rid the body of worn-out cells and other debris. Along with dendritic cells, they are foremost among the cells that present antigens, a crucial role in initiating an immune response.
As secretory cells, monocytes and macrophages are vital to the regulation of immune responses and the development of inflammation; they produce a wide array of powerful chemical substances (monokines) including enzymes, complement proteins, and regulatory factors such as interleukin-1. At the same time, they carry receptors for lymphokines that allow them to be “activated” into single-minded pursuit of microbes and tumor cells.
After digesting a pathogen, a macrophage will present the antigen (a molecule, most often a protein found on the surface of the pathogen and used by the immune system for identification) of the pathogen to the corresponding helper T cell. The presentation is done by integrating it into the cell membrane and displaying it attached to an MHC class II molecule, indicating to other white blood cells that the macrophage is not a pathogen, despite having antigens on its surface.
Eventually, the antigen presentation results in the production of antibodies that attach to the antigens of pathogens, making them easier for macrophages to adhere to with their cell membrane and phagocytose. In some cases, pathogens are very resistant to adhesion by the macrophages.
The antigen presentation on the surface of infected macrophages (in the context of MHC class II) in a lymph node stimulates TH1 (type 1 helper T cells) to proliferate (mainly due to IL-12 secretion from the macrophage). When a B-cell in the lymph node recognizes the same unprocessed surface antigen on the bacterium with its surface bound antibody, the antigen is endocytosed and processed.
The processed antigen is then presented in MHCII on the surface of the B-cell. T cells that express the T cell receptor which recognizes the antigen-MHCII complex (with co-stimulatory factors- CD40 and CD40L) cause the B-cell to produce antibodies that help opsonisation of the antigen so that the bacteria can be better cleared by phagocytes.
Macrophages provide yet another line of defense against tumor cells and somatic cells infected with fungus or parasites. Once a T cell has recognized its particular antigen on the surface of an aberrant cell, the T cell becomes an activated effector cell, producing chemical mediators known as lymphokines that stimulate macrophages into a more aggressive form.
Some believe that there are several activated forms of macrophages. In spite of a spectrum of ways to activate macrophages, there are two main groups designated M1 and M2. M1 macrophages, as mentioned earlier (previously referred to as classically activated macrophages), M1 “killer” macrophages are activated by LPS and IFN-gamma, and secrete high levels of IL-12 and low levels of IL-10.
In contrast, the M2 “repair” designation (also referred to as alternatively activated macrophages) broadly refers to macrophages that function in constructive processes like wound healing and tissue repair, and those that turn off damaging immune system activation by producing anti-inflammatory cytokines like IL-10. M2 is the phenotype of resident tissue macrophages, and can be further elevated by IL-4. M2 macrophages produce high levels of IL-10, TGF-beta and low levels of IL-12. Tumor-associated macrophages are mainly of the M2 phenotype, and seem to actively promote tumor growth.
Both M1 and M2 macrophages play a role in promotion of atherosclerosis. M1 macrophages promote atherosclerosis by inflammation. M2 macrophages can remove cholesterol from blood vessels, but when the cholesterol is oxidized, the M2 macrophages become apoptotic foam cells contributing to the atheromatous plaque of atherosclerosis.
Role In Muscle Regeneration
The first step to understanding the importance of macrophages in muscle repair, growth, and regeneration is that there are two “waves” of macrophages with the onset of damageable muscle use – sub-populations that do and do not directly have an influence on repairing muscle.
The initial wave is a phagocytic population that comes along during periods of increased muscle use that are sufficient to cause muscle membrane lysis and membrane inflammation, which can enter and degrade the contents of injured muscle fibers.
These early-invading, phagocytic macrophages reach their highest concentration about 24 hours following the onset of some form of muscle cell injury or reloading. Their concentration rapidly declines after 48 hours.
The second group is the non-phagocytic types that are distributed near regenerative fibers. These peak between two and four days and remain elevated for several days during the hopeful muscle rebuilding. The first subpopulation has no direct benefit to repairing muscle, while the second non-phagocytic group does.
It is thought that macrophages release soluble substances that influence the proliferation, differentiation, growth, repair, and regeneration of muscle, but at this time the factor that is produced to mediate these effects is unknown. It is known that macrophages’ involvement in promoting tissue repair is not muscle specific; they accumulate in numerous tissues during the healing process phase following injury.
Role In Wound Healing
Macrophages are essential for wound healing. They replace polymorphonuclear neutrophils as the predominant cells in the wound by two days after injury. Attracted to the wound site by growth factors released by platelets and other cells, monocytes from the bloodstream enter the area through blood vessel walls.
Numbers of monocytes in the wound peak one to one and a half days after the injury occurs. Once they are in the wound site, monocytes mature into macrophages. The spleen contains half the body’s monocytes in reserve ready to be deployed to injured tissue.
The macrophage’s main role is to phagocytize bacteria and damaged tissue, and they also debride damaged tissue by releasing proteases. Macrophages also secrete a number of factors such as growth factors and other cytokines, especially during the third and fourth post-wounding days.
Macrophages are stimulated by the low oxygen content of their surroundings to produce factors that induce and speed angiogenesis and they also stimulate cells that reepithelialize the wound, create granulation tissue, and lay down a new extracellular matrix. By secreting these factors, macrophages contribute to pushing the wound healing process into the next phase.
Due to their role in phagocytosis, macrophages are involved in many diseases of the immune system. For example, they participate in the formation of granulomas, inflammatory lesions that may be caused by a large number of diseases.
In their role as a phagocytic immune cell macrophages are responsible for engulfing pathogens to destroy them. Some pathogens subvert this process and instead live inside the macrophage. This provides an environment in which the pathogen is hidden from the immune system and allows it to replicate.
Diseases with this type of behaviour include tuberculosis (caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and leishmaniasis (caused by Leishmania species).
Once engulfed by a macrophage, the causative agent of tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, avoids cellular defenses and uses the cell to replicate.
Upon phagocytosis by a macrophage, the Leishmania parasite finds itself in a phagocytic vacuole. Under normal circumstances, this phagocytic vacuole would develop into a lysosome and its contents would be digested.
Leishmania alter this process and avoid being destroyed; instead, they make a home inside the vacuole.
Macrophages are the predominant cells involved in creating the progressive plaque lesions of atherosclerosis.
Macrophages also play a role in human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection. Like T cells, macrophages can be infected with HIV, and even become a reservoir of ongoing virus replication throughout the body. HIV can enter the macrophage through binding of gp120 to CD4 and second membrane receptor, CCR5 (a chemokine receptor).
Both circulating monocytes and macrophages serve as a reservoir for the virus. Macrophages are better able resist infection by HIV-1 than CD4+ T cells, although susceptibility to HIV infection differs among macrophage subtypes.
Macrophages contribute to tumor growth and progression. Attracted to oxygen-starved (hypoxic) and necrotic tumor cells they promote chronic inflammation.
Inflammatory compounds such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha released by the macrophages activate the gene switch nuclear factor-kappa B. NF-κB then enters the nucleus of a tumor cell and turns on production of proteins that stop apoptosis and promote cell proliferation and inflammation.
Moreover, macrophages serve as a source for many pro-angiogenic factors including vascular endothelial factor (VEGF), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and IL-1 and IL-6, contributing further to the tumor growth. Macrophages have been shown to infiltrate a number of tumors. Their number correlates with poor prognosis in certain cancers including cancers of breast, cervix, bladder and brain.
Tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) are thought to acquire an M2 phenotype, contributing to tumor growth and progression. Recent study findings suggest that by forcing IFN-α expression in tumor-infiltrating macrophages, it is possible to blunt their innate pro-tumoral activity and reprogram the tumor microenvironment toward more effective dendritic cell activation and immune effector cell cytotoxicity.
Top Image: Obli, CC BY-SA 2.0. A macrophage of a mouse stretching its “arms” (pseudopodia) to engulf two particles, possibly pathogens.