T helper cells plasticity in inflammation



CD4+ T cells can be subdivided from a functional point of view into two main subsets: effector cells, which provide protection against exogenous offending agents, and regulatory T (Treg) cells whose function is to avoid autoimmune reactions and to stop the effector response against exogenous antigens, when the response itself becomes dangerous for the host. Human effector CD4+ T lymphocytes can be additionally classified into lineages based mainly on their immunological functions that are supported by distinct profile of cytokine, transcription factor, and homing receptors expression. In the last years, beyond the well known populations of human T helper (Th) lymphocytes, Th1 and Th2 cells, other populations have been discovered and phenotypically characterized. These include the Th17 subset, which is certainly the most intensively studied, but also Th22, Th9, and T follicular helper (Tfh) lymphocytes. In addition to their protective functions, these T helper populations are also involved in the pathogenesis of several inflammatory immune-mediated disorders. Th1 and Th17 cells are involved in the pathogenesis of organ-specific autoimmune diseases and other chronic inflammatory disorders, whereas allergen-specific Th2 lymphocytes play a crucial role in allergy. Although classically viewed as distinct lineages, recent evidence indicate that CD4+ T cells, particularly the Th17 subset, are more plastic than previously thought. It is not fully understood how often such plasticity occurs in the course of physiologic responses to pathogens and what its importance is in protective immunity, but in inflammatory conditions Th17 lymphocytes that have shifted towards a Th1 or Th2 phenotype, acquiring the ability to produce IFN-γ or IL-4, and seem to be particularly aggressive and more pathogenic than the unshifted cells. In this context, the possibility to interfere with this modulation of phenotype can be considered a possible target for developing novel therapeutic strategies in the above mentioned diseases. © 2013 International Society for Advancement of Cytometry