Mycobacterium avium spp. paratuberculosis (MAP) causes a persistent infection and chronic inflammation of the gut in ruminants leading to bacterial shedding in feces in many infected animals. Although there are often strong MAP-specific immune responses in infected animals, immunological correlates of protection against progression to disease remain poorly defined. Analysis of cross-sectional data has suggested that the cellular immune response observed early in infection is effective at containing bacterial growth and shedding, in contrast to humoral immune responses. In this study, 20 MAP-infected calves were followed for nearly 5 years during which MAP shedding, antigen-specific cellular (LPT) and humoral (ELISA) immune responses were measured. We found that MAP-specific cellular immune response developed slowly, with the peak of the immune response occurring one year post infection. MAP-specific humoral immunity expanded only in a subset of animals. Only in a subset of animals there was a statistically significant negative correlation between the amount of MAP shedding and magnitude of the MAP-specific cellular immune response. Direct fitting of simple mechanistic mathematical models to the shedding data suggested that MAP-specific immune responses contributed significantly to the kinetics of MAP shedding in most animals. However, whereas the MAP-specific cellular immune response was predicted to suppress shedding in some animals, in other animals it was predicted to increase shedding. In contrast, MAP-specific humoral response was always predicted to increase shedding. Our results illustrate the use of mathematical methods to understand relationships between mycobacteria and immunity in vivo but also highlight problems with establishing cause-effect links from observational data
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