Regulatory T cell deficiency is evident in patients with lupus, but the casual relationship and underlying mechanism leading to Treg deficiency are unclear. We analyzed the Treg profile, induction and functions of Treg in a lupus mouse model. A characteristic age-dependent biphasic change of Treg frequency was observed in the MRL/lpr mice, which developed a spontaneous lupus-like disease. After an early increase, Treg frequency in the peripheral lymphoid organs rapidly declined with age. Functionally, Treg from both young and old MRL/lpr mice were fully competent in suppressing the wild-type MRL/+ T effector cell (Teff) responses. Adoptive transfer of MRL/+ Treg markedly suppressed clinical disease in the MRL/lpr mice. We demonstrated that the reduced Treg frequency was a result of insufficient peripheral Treg expansion due to defective MRL/lpr Teff in IL-2 production, and the associated defects in dendritic cells, which could be fully restored by exogenous IL-2. In the absence of IL-2, MRL/lpr Teff but not MRL/lpr Treg were highly responsive to IL-15 and could expand rapidly due to enhanced IL-15R expression and IL-15 synthesis. These findings thus provide a clear causal relationship and immunological mechanism underlying Treg deficiency and systemic autoimmunity.
Supporting Information for this article is available at www.wiley-vch.de/contents/jc_2040/2008/38190_s.pdf