Increased T helper type 17 response to pathogen stimulation in patients with primary sclerosing cholangitis


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.

  • This work was supported by the German Research Foundation (SFB 841), the Graduate School program “Inflammation and Regeneration,” and the YAEL Foundation.

Address reprint requests to: Christoph Schramm, M.D., Department of Medicine, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Martinistraße 52, 20246 Hamburg, Germany. E-mail:; fax: +49 40-7410-40001.


T helper (Th)17 cells are important for host defense against bacteria and fungi, but are also involved in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases. In primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), bile fluid is frequently colonized with pathogens and its strong association with inflammatory bowel disease suggests the contribution of pathogen responses to disease pathogenesis. Interleukin (IL)-17A, the signature cytokine of Th17 cells, was recently described to promote inflammation and fibrosis within the liver. Therefore, we investigated Th17 immune response to pathogens in patients with PSC. Bile fluid was obtained by endoscopic retrograde cholangiography, and bacterial and fungal species grew in the majority of samples. In addition, bacterial RNA was stained in liver sections using 16sRNA fluorescence in situ hybridization and was detected in the portal tracts in 12 of 13 tested PSC patients. Bacteria grown from patients' bile fluid were then used to stimulate peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and to assess their Th17 response. Compared to healthy controls or primary biliary cirrhosis patients, PBMCs from PSC patients manifested significantly higher frequencies of Th17 and Th1/Th17 cells after pathogen stimulation. The highest frequencies of Th17 cells were detected after stimulation with Candida albicans, a pathogen that has been linked to disease progression. Immunohistochemically, IL-17A-expressing lymphocytes were detected within the periductal areas of PSC patients. Th17 induction was also noted after stimulation of Toll-like receptor 5 or 7, but not of other pattern recognition receptors tested, pointing to signaling pathways potentially involved in Th17 induction in PSC. Conclusion: We demonstrate an increased Th17 response to microbial stimulation in patients with PSC. These data should prompt further studies investigating the link between pathogen responses, inflammation, and fibrosis in patients with PSC. (Hepatology 2013;53:1084–1093)