Free radical biology & medicine

Nrf2 expression and activity in human T lymphocytes: stimulation by T cell receptor activation and priming by inorganic arsenic and tert-butylhydroquinone.

PMID 24632381


The transcription factor nuclear factor-erythroid 2-related-2 (Nrf2) controls cellular redox homeostasis and displays immunomodulatory properties. Nrf2 alters cytokine expression in murine T cells, but its effects in human T lymphocytes are unknown. This study investigated the expression and activity of Nrf2 in human activated CD4(+) T helper lymphocytes (Th cells) that mediate the adaptive immune response. Th cells were isolated from peripheral blood mononuclear cells and activated with antibodies against CD3 and CD28, mimicking physiologic Th cell stimulation by dendritic cells. Nrf2 is hardly detectable in unstimulated Th cells. Activation of Th cells rapidly and strongly increases the levels of Nrf2 protein by increasing NRF2 gene transcription. Th cell activation also enhances mRNA and protein levels of Nrf2 target genes encoding antioxidant enzymes. Blocking Nrf2 expression using chemical inhibitors or siRNAs prevents these gene inductions. Pretreatment with inorganic arsenic, a Nrf2 inducer that does not alter NRF2 gene expression, increases protein level and transcriptional activity of Nrf2 induced by Th cell stimulation. Inorganic arsenic enhances nuclear translocation of Nrf2, its interaction with the coactivator protein p300, and its DNA binding activity. Inhibition of Nrf2 expression abrogates the effects of inorganic arsenic on mRNA levels of antioxidant genes, but does not alter the expression of IL-2, TNF-α, interferon-γ, or IL-17 in Th cells activated in the absence or presence of the metalloid. In conclusion, this study demonstrates for the first time that stimulation of human Th cells increases transcription of the NRF2 gene and activity of the Nrf2 protein. However, modulation of Nrf2 levels does not modify the secretion of inflammatory cytokines from these T lymphocytes.