Female genital tract (FGT) inflammation increases HIV infection susceptibility. Non-optimal cervicovaginal microbiota, characterized by depletion of Lactobacillus species and increased bacterial diversity, is associated with increased FGT cytokine production. Lactobacillus species may protect against HIV partly by reducing FGT inflammation. We isolated 80 lactobacilli from South African women with non-optimal (Nugent 4-10; n = 18) and optimal microbiota (Nugent 0-3; n = 14). Cytokine production by vaginal epithelial cells in response to lactobacilli in the presence and absence of Gardnerella vaginalis was measured using Luminex. Adhesion to vaginal epithelial cells, pH, D/L-lactate production and lactate dehydrogenase relative abundance were assessed. Lactobacilli from women with non-optimal produced less lactic acid and induced greater inflammatory cytokine production than those from women with optimal microbiota, with IL-6, IL-8, IL-1alpha, IL-1beta and MIP-1alpha/beta production significantly elevated. Overall, lactobacilli suppressed IL-6 (adjusted p < 0.001) and IL-8 (adjusted p = 0.0170) responses to G. vaginalis. Cytokine responses to the lactobacilli were inversely associated with lactobacilli adhesion to epithelial cells and D-lactate dehydrogenase relative abundance. Thus, while cervicovaginal lactobacilli reduced the production of the majority of inflammatory cytokines in response to G. vaginalis, isolates from women with non-optimal microbiota were more inflammatory and produced less lactic acid than isolates from women with optimal microbiota.
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