There is no effective treatment for autoimmune biliary diseases. Therefore, understanding their immunopathology is crucial. The biliary epithelial cells (BEC), expressing TLR-4, are constantly exposed to gut microbes and bacterial wall LPS, and in settings of inflammation, the immune infiltrate is dense within the peribiliary region of human liver. By dual immunohistochemistry, we affirm human intrahepatic T cell infiltrate includes CCR6+CD4+ and AhR+CD4+ T cells with potential for plasticity to Th17 phenotype. Mechanistically, we demonstrate that Th1 and Th17 inflammatory cytokines and LPS enhance human primary BEC release of the CCR6 ligand CCL20 and BEC secretion of Th17-polarizing cytokines IL-6 and IL-1β. Cell culture assays with human BEC secretome showed that secretome polarizes CD4 T cells toward a Th17 phenotype and supports the survival of Th17 cells. BEC secretome did not promote Th1 cell generation. Additionally, we give evidence for a mutually beneficial feedback of the type 17 cell infiltrate on BEC, showing that treatment with type 17 cytokines increases BEC proliferation, as monitored by Ki67 and activation of JAK2-STAT3 signaling. This study identifies human BEC as active players in determining the nature of the intrahepatic immune microenvironment. In settings of inflammation and/or infection, biliary epithelium establishes a prominent peribiliary type 17 infiltrate via recruitment and retention and enhances polarization of intrahepatic CD4 cells toward Th17 cells via type 17 cytokines, and, reciprocally, Th17 cells promote BEC proliferation for biliary regeneration. Altogether, we provide new insight into cross-talk between Th17 lymphocytes and human primary biliary epithelium in biliary regenerative pathologies.
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