High Content Image Analysis as a Tool to Morphologically Distinguish Macrophage Activation and Determine Its Importance for Foamy Alveolar Macrophage Responses

Ewelina Hoffman, Paulina Napieralska, Rhamiya Mahendran, Darragh Murnane, Victoria Hutter

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Introduction: Lung diseases are an increasing global health burden affecting millions of people worldwide. Only a few new inhaled medicines have reached the market in the last 30 years, in part due to foamy alveolar macrophage (FAM) responses observed in pre-clinical rat studies. The induction mechanism and signaling pathways involved in the development of highly vacuolated ‘foamy’ phenotype is not known. Furthermore, it has not been determined if these observations are adaptive or adverse responses. Aim: To determine if high content image analysis techniques can distinguish between alveolar macrophage activation (LPS/IFN-γ activated and IL-4 activated macrophages) and if this could be applied to understanding the generation of ‘foamy’ macrophage phenotypes. Methods: NR8383 rat alveolar macrophages were stimulated with a mix of cytokines (LPS/IFN-γ or IL-4) for 24 h. The cells were further exposed to FAM inducing-compounds amiodarone and staurosporine. Following 24 h incubation, phagocytosis and lipid accumulation were measured using flow cytometry and high content image analysis techniques. The alveolar macrophages responses after exposure to cytokines were assessed by evaluation: (i) cell surface and biochemical markers such as: nitric oxide production, arginase-1 activity and MRC-1 receptor expression (ii) cellular morphology (iii) cellular functionality (phagocytic activity and lipids accumulation). Results: Macrophages activated with LPS/IFN-γ showed distinct morphological (increased vacuolation) features and functionality (increased lipidosis, decreased phagocytic activity). Foamy macrophage phenotypes induced by amiodarone also displayed characteristics of proinflammatory macrophages (significantly increased nitric oxide production, increased vacuolation and lipidosis and decreased phagocytosis). In contrast, staurosporine treatment resulted in increased NO production, as well as arginase-1 activity. Conclusion: High content image analysis was able to determine distinct differences in morphology between non-activated and LPS/IFN-γ activated macrophages, characterized by increased vacuolation and lipidosis. When exposed to compounds that induce a FAM phenotype, healthy non-activated macrophages displayed proinflammatory (amiodarone) or pro-apoptotic (staurosporine) characteristics but these responses were independent of a change in activation status. This technique could be applied in early drug discovery safety assessment to identify immune responses earlier and increase the understanding of alveolar macrophage responses to new molecules challenge in development of new inhalation therapies, which in turn will enhance decision-making in an early safety assessment of novel drug candidates.
Original languageEnglish
Article number611280
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Early online date1 Sept 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Sept 2021


  • Immunology
  • alveolar macrophages
  • foamy alveolar macrophages
  • macrophage morphometrics
  • vacuolation
  • cytokine activation


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