Optimal clearance of the various pathogen types encountered by the human body requires the selective activation of particular cellular and/or humoral immune responses. The orchestration of the types of effector responses is directed by Th cells through the production of type 1 (Th1 cell-associated) and type 2 (Th2 cell-associated) cytokines. The way in which the Th cell cytokine profile is matched to the type of invading pathogen, and why these profiles sometimes derail and lead to disease, is not well understood. Here, we will discuss the concept that antigen-presenting cells (APC) provide Th cells not only with antigen and costimulatory signals, but also with a polarizing signal (signal 3). This signal can be mediated by many APC-derived factors, but IL-12 and PGE2 seem to be of major importance. The Th2-biased responses in atopic allergy appeared to be associated with monocytes with a decreased IL-12/PGE2 ratio and, consequently, with the down-regulation of type 1 cytokine production in Th cells. As for Th cells, APC can be functionialy polarized. In vitro experiments with monocyte-derived dendritic cells (DC) showed that the presence of IFN-γ during activation of immature DC primes for mature DC with the ability of high IL-12 production and, consequently, a Th1-driving capacity (APC1 or DC1). In contrast, PGE2 primes for a low IL-12 production ability and a Th2-driving capacity (APC2 or DC2). These findings suggest that pathogens provoke either Th1- or Th2-cell development by inducing the production of a certain pattern of inflammatory DC-polarizing mediators (e.g. IFN-γ and PGE2) at the site of infection. The type of immune polarization will not only depend on the type of pathogen, but also varies with the type of infected tissue, i.e. that different tissues produce different mediators in response to the same pathogen. In the case of atopic allergy, this concept implies that the Th2-cell bias may be related to low levels of cross-regulatory infections, to Th1 cell-inducing pathogens, or to an aberrant function of stromal cells in peripheral tissues.
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