Cochlear supporting cells function as macrophage-like cells and protect audiosensory receptor hair cells from pathogens
To protect the audiosensory organ from tissue damage from the immune system, the inner ear is separated from the circulating immune system by the blood-labyrinth barrier, which was previously considered an immune-privileged site. Recent studies have shown that macrophages are distributed in the cochlea, especially in the spiral ligament, spiral ganglion, and stria vascularis; however, the direct pathogen defence mechanism used by audiosensory receptor hair cells (HCs) has remained obscure. Here, we show that HCs are protected from pathogens by surrounding accessory supporting cells (SCs) and greater epithelial ridge (GER or Kölliker's organ) cells (GERCs). In isolated murine cochlear sensory epithelium, we established Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus, which infected the SCs and GERCs, but very few HCs. The virus-infected SCs produced interferon (IFN)-α/β, and the viruses efficiently infected the HCs in the IFN-α/β receptor-null sensory epithelium. Interestingly, the virus-infected SCs and GERCs expressed macrophage marker proteins and were eliminated from the cell layer by cell detachment. Moreover, lipopolysaccharide induced phagocytosis of the SCs without cell detachment, and the SCs phagocytosed the bacteria. These results reveal that SCs function as macrophage-like cells, protect adjacent HCs from pathogens, and provide a novel anti-infection inner ear immune system.