Fibrotic skin changes in systemic sclerosis (SSc) are preceded by the appearance of an inflammatory infiltrate rich in T cells. Since no direct comparison with T cells in normal skin has been performed previously, this study was undertaken to functionally characterize T cells in the skin of patients with early active SSc and in normal skin.
We characterized coreceptor expression, T cell receptor (TCR) usage, cytokine production, and helper and cytolytic activity of T cell lines and clones established from skin biopsy specimens from 6 SSc patients and 4 healthy individuals. Immunofluorescence analysis of skin biopsy and peripheral blood samples was performed to confirm the presence of specific subsets in vivo.
A distinct subset expressing both CD4 and CD8α/β coreceptors at high levels (double-positive [DP]) was present in T cell lines from SSc and normal skin. DP T cells actively transcribed both accessory molecules, exerted clonally distributed cytolytic and helper activity, and expressed TCR clonotypes distinct from those in CD4+ or CD8+ single-positive (SP) T cells. In SSc skin, DP T cells produced very high levels of interleukin-4 (IL-4) compared with CD4+ SP T cells. Furthermore, DP T cells were directly identified in SSc skin, thus providing evidence that they are a distinct subset in vivo.
The present findings show that T cells with the unusual CD4+CD8+ DP phenotype are present in the skin. Their very high level of IL-4 production in early active SSc may contribute to enhanced extracellular matrix deposition by fibroblasts.