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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Dec 30;105(52):20846-51. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0809077106. Epub 2008 Dec 16.

IRF4 is essential for IL-21-mediated induction, amplification, and stabilization of the Th17 phenotype.

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  • 1Institut für Medizinische Mikrobiologie und Hygiene, Universität Marburg, 35043 Marburg, Germany.


Differentiation of murine T-helper (Th) 17 cells is induced by antigenic stimulation and the sequential action of the cytokines IL-6, IL-21, and IL-23, along with TGFbeta. Current dogma proposes that IL-6 induces IL-21, which, in a STAT3-dependent manner, amplifies its own transcription, contributes to IL-17 production, and, moreover, promotes the expression of the IL-23 receptor. This, in turn, prepares cells for IL-23-mediated stabilization of the Th17 phenotype. Here we demonstrate that these effects of IL-21 on Th17 differentiation are completely dependent on IFN regulatory factor 4 (IRF4). After culturing in the presence of IL-21 plus TGFbeta, IRF4-deficient (Irf4(-/-)) Th cells showed a profound intrinsic defect in IL-17 production and in the autocrine IL-21 loop. Likewise, the levels of IL-23 receptor and the lineage-specific orphan nuclear receptors RORalpha and RORgammat were diminished, whereas the T regulatory (Treg) transcription factor forkhead box P3 (Foxp3) was strongly up-regulated, consistent with the reciprocal relationship between Th17 and Treg development. Despite this loss of IL-21 functions, IL-21-induced STAT3 activation was unimpaired and induced normal Socs3 expression. Forced expression of Foxp3 in WT cells inhibited IL-21-mediated IL-17 production, suggesting that the increase in Foxp3 contributes to the Irf4(-/-) phenotype. Additionally, the low levels of RORalpha and RORgammat are also partially responsible, because simultaneous overexpression of both proteins restored IL-17 production in Irf4(-/-) cells to some extent. These data highlight IRF4 as a decisive factor during the IL-21-mediated steps of Th17 development by influencing the balance of Foxp3, RORalpha, and RORgammat.

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