HLA–B27/human β2-microglobulin–transgenic (B27-transgenic) rats, a model of spondylarthritis (SpA), develop spontaneous colitis and arthritis under conventional conditions. CD4+ T cells are pivotal in the development of inflammation in B27-transgenic rats. This study was undertaken to characterize the phenotype of CD4+ T cells in this model and to determine whether dendritic cells (DCs) induce proinflammatory T cells.
The phenotype of CD4+ T cells from rat lymph nodes (LNs) draining the sites of inflammation was analyzed by flow cytometry. Immunostaining was used to detect interleukin-17 (IL-17)–producing cells in the rat joints. DCs from B27-transgenic or control rats (transgenic for HLA–B7 or nontransgenic) were cocultured with control CD4+ T cells and stimulated with anti–T cell receptor α/β.
IL-17A– and tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα)–producing CD4+ T cells were expanded in mesenteric and popliteal LNs from B27-transgenic rats. The accumulation of Th17 cells correlated with disease development, in contrast to Th1 or Treg cells. IL-17–positive mononuclear cells were detected in the arthritic joints of B27-transgenic rats but not in the joints of control rats. Finally, in vitro cocultures demonstrated that Th17 cells were preferentially induced and expanded by DCs from B27-transgenic rats, by a process that may involve defective engagement of costimulatory molecules.
Our findings indicate that expanded CD4+ T cells in B27-transgenic rats exhibit a proinflammatory Th17 phenotype characterized by IL-17A and TNFα production. Furthermore, this population is preferentially induced by DCs from B27-transgenic rats. These data point toward an induction of Th17 cells as a possible pathogenic mechanism in this model of SpA. However, their pathogenic role still needs to be shown.