Metastatic disease is a major concern of dermal leishmaniasis caused by Leishmania of the Viannia subgenus. The golden hamster provides an experimental model of systemic dissemination and cutaneous metastasis of Leishmania Viannia. We have exploited this model to examine the expression of parasite virulence in cloned populations derived from a strain of L. guyanensis previously shown to be highly metastatic in the hamster. Metastatic capacity manifested as dissemination throughout the lymphoid organs; cachexia and secondary cutaneous lesions were found to differ among clones, yielding a spectrum of virulence. The metastatic phenotype of clonal populations was stable over 5 sequential passages in hamsters. In addition, the low or high propensity to disseminate and produce cutaneous metastatic lesions was reproduced. Capacity to disseminate from the inoculation site was conserved following subcloning of metastatic clones that had been passaged in culture for several generations; clinical manifestations, cachexia, and cutaneous metastatic lesions were variably expressed. Dissemination of parasites and cachexia were significantly related (P = 0.004). Overall, cachexia was an earlier manifestation of dissemination than cutaneous metastases (P < 0.001). The reproducible expression of virulence phenotypes by discrete populations of Leishmania in the golden hamster provides an experimental model for clinically relevant expression of virulence in human leishmaniasis.

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