PloS one

Characterization of protective human CD4CD25 FOXP3 regulatory T cells generated with IL-2, TGF-β and retinoic acid.

PMID 21179414


Protective CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cells bearing the Forkhead Foxp3 transcription factor can now be divided into three subsets: Endogenous thymus-derived cells, those induced in the periphery, and another subset induced ex-vivo with pharmacological amounts of IL-2 and TGF-β. Unfortunately, endogenous CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cells are unstable and can be converted to effector cells by pro-inflammatory cytokines. Although protective Foxp3+CD4+CD25+ cells resistant to proinflammatory cytokines have been generated in mice, in humans this result has been elusive. Our objective, therefore, was to induce human naïve CD4+ cells to become stable, functional CD25+ Foxp3+ regulatory cells that were also resistant to the inhibitory effects of proinflammatory cytokines. The addition of the vitamin A metabolite, all-trans retinoic acid (atRA) to human naïve CD4+ cells suboptimally activated with IL-2 and TGF-β enhanced and stabilized FOXP3 expression, and accelerated their maturation to protective regulatory T cells. AtRA, by itself, accelerated conversion of naïve to mature cells but did not induce FOXP3 or suppressive activity. The combination of atRA and TGF-β enabled CD4+CD45RA+ cells to express a phenotype and trafficking receptors similar to natural Tregs. AtRA/TGF-β-induced CD4+ regs were anergic and low producers of IL-2. They had potent in vitro suppressive activity and protected immunodeficient mice from a human-anti-mouse GVHD as well as expanded endogenous Tregs. However, treatment of endogenous Tregs with IL-1β and IL-6 decreased FOXP3 expression and diminished their protective effects in vivo while atRA-induced iTregs were resistant to these inhibitory effects. We have developed a methodology that induces human CD4(+) cells to rapidly become stable, fully functional suppressor cells that are also resistant to proinflammatory cytokines. This methodology offers a practical novel strategy to treat human autoimmune diseases and prevent allograft rejection without the use of agents that kill cells or interfere with signaling pathways.