Classically, naive CD4+ T cells have been thought to differentiate into 2 possible helper lineages, Th1 or Th2 cells. Th1 cells produce the signature cytokine interferon-γ (IFNγ), a critical factor that promotes cellular immunity. Interleukin-12 (IL-12), acting via the transcription factor STAT-4 in concert with T-box expressed in T cells/T-box 21 (T-BET), is critical for Th1 differentiation. In contrast, Th2 development is initiated by IL-4 signaling with the participation of the transcription factors STAT-6 and GATA-3. The hallmark cytokine secreted by Th2 cells is IL-4, which is crucial for host defense against helminths and the pathogenesis of asthma and allergy. Th1 and Th2 lineage decision appears to be made at a very early stage of T helper cell differentiation, with the respective Th1/Th2 cytokines enforcing their own expression and inhibiting alternative commitment. This occurs by regulation of receptor levels, expression of transcription factors, and epigenetic changes (1–3). Another important aspect of Th1/Th2 counterregulation is interchromosomal interaction between Th1- or Th2-specific cytokine genes (4). As a result of these mechanisms, Th1 and Th2 cells develop into mature effectors with stable phenotypes and important roles in host defense, as documented in a number of murine models.
While the simple dichotomous model of T helper cell differentiation fits well with many models of infection, fitting autoimmune disease into such models has been problematic. CD4+ T cells can also differentiate to become Treg cells, and it is clear that dysregulation of this subset has major consequences with respect to the pathogenesis of autoimmunity (5). An additional complication relates to the discovery of another cytokine, IL-23. IL-23 is a dimer that shares a subunit with IL-12, IL-12p40, and both utilize a receptor subunit designated IL-12 receptor β1 (IL-12Rβ1) (6). The complex biology of IL-12 and IL-23 is relevant to the pathogenesis of autoimmunity, in that gene targeting of IL-12p40 attenuates the development of disease in many models of autoimmunity. Similarly, anti-p40 antibody is efficacious in the treatment of Crohn's disease (7). Although these effects were initially misattributed to interference with the actions of IL-12, using specific deletion of IL-23 (p19−/− mice), it is now recognized that IL-23 (and not IL-12) is the culprit, at least in many of the animal models (8–13).
One way that IL-23 is thought to promote autoimmune disease is through the regulation of IL-17A and IL-17F. IL-17A is a proinflammatory cytokine initially identified in mouse cytotoxic T cells more than 10 years ago. This family now includes 6 members (IL-17 [IL-17A], IL-17B, IL-17C, IL-17D, IL-17E, and IL-17F) (14–17) that share 16–50% amino acid identity and have different tissue expression patterns. IL-17 acts on epithelial cells, endothelial cells, fibroblasts, synoviocytes, and myeloid cells to induce secretion of a variety of mediators, including IL-8, CXCL1, CXCL6, IL-6, granulocyte–macrophage colony-stimulating factor, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα), and IL-1β. IL-17 family cytokines thus induce cellular infiltration and production of inflammatory cytokines. Dysregulated production of IL-17 is associated with human autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and psoriasis (13, 18–20). Importantly, studies in a murine experimental arthritis model showed that IL-17 was involved in both the initiation and the progression of the disease. Furthermore, elevated levels of IL-17 were detected in synovial fluid from patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoclast formation was inhibited by anti–IL-17 antibody, suggesting an effect on bone resorption (21–25).
IL-17A was originally reported to be produced by activated CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. More recently, it has been proposed that IL-17–producing CD4+ T cells represent a distinct lineage (Th17), a lineage that does not produce IL-4 or IFNγ (26–28). In fact, these products of Th1 and Th2 cells antagonize the differentiation of Th17 cells. Additionally, cytokines that promote Th17 differentiation are distinct from those that promote Th1 and Th2 differentiation. The current model is that whereas transforming growth factor β1 (TGFβ1) promotes Treg cell differentiation, the combination of TGFβ1 and IL-6 promotes Th17 lineage commitment (29–31). This subset is expanded and maintained by IL-23. Both IL-6 and IL-23 activate the transcription factor STAT-3, which directly binds to the IL-17 promoter to regulate IL-17 expression (32). Conversely, suppressor of cytokine signaling 3 negatively regulates Th17 differentiation by inhibiting STAT-3 phosphorylation (32, 33). In addition to STAT-3, retinoic acid–related orphan receptor γt (RORγt) is an important transcription factor for initiation of Th17 differentiation (34).
The current models of Th17 differentiation are all derived from studies using murine cells. Given the pathogenic relevance of IL-17 family members, it is obviously important to understand how this family of cytokines is controlled in human T cells and to define the conditions under which human naive CD4+ T cells might become Th17 cells. Previously, it was reported that T cell receptor (TCR) crosslinking leads to IL-17 production (35). It has also been reported that IL-23 induces IL-17 expression (26). However, these studies did not separate effects on memory cells versus naive cells. The ability of naive human CD4+ T cells to differentiate into IL-17 producers has not been examined, nor has a comprehensive assessment been undertaken to define the relative importance of various conditions in promoting the differentiation of this putative human lineage. Additionally, the extent to which human T cell subsets fully commit to (or extinguish) IL-17 production has not been addressed. This is important not only with respect to the pathogenesis of human autoimmune disease, but also because human T helper cell differentiation appears to exhibit much more plasticity than murine T helper cell differentiation (36).
In the present report, we show that human memory T cells up-regulate RORγt and IL-17 in response to TCR occupancy. Importantly, in sharp contrast to murine naive CD4+ T cells, in which Th17 lineage commitment is initiated by TGFβ1 and IL-6, human Th17 differentiation does not occur in response to this cytokine combination, even though these cytokines promote RORγt expression. Instead, IL-23 up-regulates its own receptor on T cells and increases RORγt and IL-17 expression. IL-23 also induces other proinflammatory cytokines, including IL-22. These findings may have important implications in the pathogenesis of human autoimmunity as compared with mouse models.
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Although the cytokine IL-17 was discovered more than 10 years ago, the existence of a new lineage of T helper cells (Th17 cells) that selectively produce IL-17 was only recently recognized (26–28). More recently, it has been argued that Th17 cells are also major producers of IL-22 (12, 42). The current view of mouse Th17 development is that TGFβ1 and IL-6 are the key cytokines that initiate the differentiation process and that IL-23 plays an essential role in the expansion and maintenance of this lineage. Support for the notion of an IL-23/IL-17 axis has been provided by a number of models of autoimmunity (6, 8–11, 26, 39, 44–46), but despite these compelling data in mice, a systematic analysis of human Th17 differentiation from naive cells has not yet been undertaken.
In the present study, we showed that regulation of IL-17 and IL-22 in human CD4+ T cells is surprisingly different from that in mouse T cells. In the mouse, TCR stimulation with a costimulatory signal alone is not sufficient to induce IL-17, especially in naive CD4+ T cells. In contrast, in human CD4+ T cells, TCR stimulation of memory cells, and to a lesser extent naive cells, is sufficient. Although IL-17–producing T cells are readily detectable among human memory CD4+ T cells, the cytokine cocktail that effectively promotes murine Th17 differentiation (TGFβ1 and IL-6) was completely ineffective in driving Th17 differentiation of naive human CD4+ T cells. Moreover, IL-23, a cytokine that does not effectively induce murine Th17 differentiation, was effective in promoting IL-17 production in human T cells. One aspect of this regulation is the ability of IL-23 to induce its own receptor, which is analogous to other cytokines, such as IL-2, IL-4, and IL-12, which also regulate the expression of their cognate receptors.
While IL-23 is an inducer of IL-17, IL-23 activates both STAT-3 and STAT-4 and is a potent inducer of IFNγ and IL-22 in human CD4+ T cells. In fact, simultaneous IL-17 and IFNγ production was readily evident in freshly isolated, anti-CD3/anti-CD28–activated human memory CD4+ T cells. Furthermore, in conditions that favored Th1 and Th2 differentiation, IL-17 production was not extinguished as is the case in mouse cells. Thus, while IL-23 is a regulator of Th17 differentiation, there appears to be more flexibility and less evidence of “lineage commitment” for selective cytokine secretion in human CD4+ T cells.
Human memory T cells clearly maintain the capacity to promptly generate IL-17; one would expect this locus to remain accessible in memory CD4+ T cells—even under circumstances that favor IFNγ and IL-4 production. Remodeling of the IL-17 locus in memory cells might also allow for efficient production of this cytokine—this possibility and others will need to be examined in the future. Additionally, we consistently observed the coexistence of IFNγ+,IL-17+ and IFNγ−,IL-17+ cells. In this regard, it is notable that IFNγ+,IL-17+ T cells are also evident in the mouse. Whether these 2 populations represent separate subsets of T helper cells or different stages of lineage polarization is also an important topic for future investigation. Although cytokine loci of opposite lineage are typically silenced in fully polarized murine Th1, Th2, and Th17 cells, this is less evident in human CD4+ cells. Investigating the basis of these differences will be an interesting area of further study as we learn more about the transcriptional and epigenetic regulation of cytokine genes.
Stimulation of human T cells with anti-CD3/anti-CD28 and IL-23 was associated with increased expression of the transcription factor RORγt, a key transcription factor controlling mouse Th17 differentiation (34). However, the expression of RORγt and IL-17 are not as tightly linked as they are in mouse cells, suggesting that IL-17 expression is likely regulated by other transcription factors. Kinetic detection of RORγt protein expression in developing Th17 cells may give some insight into the regulation of IL-17 expression, but the field is hampered by a lack of optimal reagents. Clearly, in human CD4+ T cells, TCR occupancy is very important for IL-17 induction. Accordingly, the proximal promoter of the human IL17A gene contains 2 binding sites for nuclear factor of activated T cells (NF-AT), which appear to be important in the regulation of IL-17 (35). However, our data suggest that factors other than RORγt and NF-AT may be important contributors.
The discordant expression of IL-17 and RORγt is also of interest when viewed in the context of the regulation of FoxP3 in human T cells. In murine T cells, Foxp3 expression is tightly controlled and correlates well with the suppressive activity of Treg cells. However, FoxP3 is more widely expressed in activated human T cells, and its expression is not necessarily indicative of a population of cells with suppressive activity (47). Curiously, FoxP3+,IL-17+ cells were present when T cells were stimulated with TGFβ1 and IL-6; the exact functional significance of such FoxP3+,IL-17+ cells remains to be determined.
Additionally, the mechanisms underlying the distinct regulation of IL-17 and IL-22 are not clear. IL-23–dependent IL-22 production is impaired in STAT-3–deficient T cells, and this is likely due to impaired IL-23R expression (data not shown). However, in preliminary experiments, IL-12–dependent IL-22 production was not impaired in STAT-3–deficient mice, presumably because of the importance of STAT-4.
Recent studies have supported the notion of a role of IL-23 in autoimmune responses, and a preponderance of evidence indicates that this cytokine may be more clinically relevant than its close relative IL-12 in causing autoimmunity (8–11, 45). The recent discovery of the relationship between IL-23R single-nucleotide polymorphisms and the prevalence of inflammatory bowel disease highlights the relevance of this cytokine in human autoimmune disease (48). The present data support the importance of an IL-23/IL-17 axis in human CD4+ T cells, consistent with what is seen in murine systems, although IL-23 seems to play a subtly different role. Since IL-23R expression is low in naive T cells, there are likely to be other unidentified cytokines or signals that act in conjunction with IL-23 to regulate IL-17 expression. However, in human CD4+ T cells, IL-23 is also an extremely potent inducer of IL-22, IFNγ, and TNF, cytokines that all participate in autoimmune diseases (12, 49, 50). Therefore, the concept that a major driver of autoimmune diseases can be explained solely by a discrete IL-23/IL-17 connection is likely an oversimplification in humans. The actions of IL-23 are clearly of interest, but this cytokine apparently has very diverse effects on human CD4+ T cells.