Erythrocyte sialoglycoproteins engage Siglec-9 on neutrophils to suppress activation

Anel Lizcano, Ismael Secundino, Simon Döhrmann, Ross Corriden, Cristina Rohena, Sandra Diaz, Pradipta Ghosh, Lingquan Deng, Victor Nizet and Ajit Varki

Key Points

  • Erythrocytes suppress neutrophil activation and apoptosis in whole blood.

  • Sialoglycoproteins on the erythrocyte surface regulate neutrophils through Siglec-9.


Healthy blood neutrophils are functionally quiescent in the bloodstream, have a short lifespan, and exit the circulation to carry out innate immune functions, or undergo rapid apoptosis and macrophage-mediated clearance to mitigate host tissue damage. Limitation of unnecessary intravascular neutrophil activation is also important to prevent serious inflammatory pathologies. Because neutrophils become easily activated after purification, we carried out ex vivo comparisons with neutrophils maintained in whole blood. We found a difference in activation state, with purified neutrophils showing signs of increased reactivity: shedding of l-selectin, CD11b upregulation, increased oxidative burst, and faster progression to apoptosis. We discovered that erythrocytes suppressed neutrophil activation ex vivo and in vitro, including reduced l-selectin shedding, oxidative burst, chemotaxis, neutrophil extracellular trap formation, bacterial killing, and induction of apoptosis. Selective and specific modification of sialic acid side chains on erythrocyte surfaces with mild sodium metaperiodate oxidation followed by aldehyde quenching with 4-methyl-3-thiosemicarbazide reduced neutrophil binding to erythrocytes and restored neutrophil activation. By enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and immunofluorescence, we found that glycophorin A, the most abundant sialoglycoprotein on erythrocytes, engaged neutrophil Siglec-9, a sialic acid–recognizing receptor known to dampen innate immune cell activation. These studies demonstrate a previously unsuspected role for erythrocytes in suppressing neutrophils ex vivo and in vitro and help explain why neutrophils become easily activated after separation from whole blood. We propose that a sialic acid–based “self-associated molecular pattern” on erythrocytes also helps maintain neutrophil quiescence in the bloodstream. Our findings may be relevant to some prior experimental and clinical studies of neutrophils.

  • Submitted November 23, 2016.
  • Accepted April 4, 2017.
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