The T cell branch of the immune system can respond to a virtually infinite variety of exogenous antigens, thus including the possibility of self-antigen recognition and dangerous autoimmune reactions. Therefore, regulatory mechanisms operate both during ontogeny within the thymus and after birth in the periphery. The control of self-reactive T cells occurs through a process of negative selection that results in apoptosis of T cells showing high affinity for self-peptides expressed at the thymic level by means of promiscuous gene expression. Self-reactive T cells escaped to negative selection are controlled in the periphery by other regulatory mechanisms, the most important being natural Foxp3+ T regulatory (Treg) cells. Regulation is also required to control excessive effector T cell responses against exogenous antigens, when they become dangerous for the body. Three types of effector T cells have been recognized: T helper 1 (Th1) cells, which are protective against intracellular bacteria; Th2 cells, which play some role in the protection against nematodes, but are responsible for allergic reactions; Th17 cells, which are probably effective in the protection against extracellular bacteria, but also play a role in the amplification of autoimmune disorders. Abnormal or excessive Th effector responses are regulated by different mechanisms. Redirection or immune deviation of Th1- or Th2-dominated responses is provided by cytokines [interferon-γ (IFN-γ) vs. interleukin-4 (IL-4)] produced by the same cell types and by the CXCR3-binding chemokines CXCL4 and CXCL10. Moreover, both Th1 and Th2 responses can be suppressed by adaptive Treg cells through contact-dependent mechanisms and/or the production of IL-10 and transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β). Finally, TGF-β1 can promote the development of both Th17 effector and adaptive Treg cells, while the contemporaneous production of IL-6 contributes to the development of Th17 cells, but inhibits Treg cells. The development of Th17 cells is also down-regulated by IL-4 produced by Th2 cells and by IFN-γ produced by Th1 cells.
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