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Arthritis Res. 2002;4 Suppl 3:S197-211. Epub 2002 May 9.

Studies of T-cell activation in chronic inflammation.

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The Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology Division, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College, London, UK.


The strong association between specific alleles encoded within the MHC class II region and the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has provided the best evidence to date that CD4+ T cells play a role in the pathogenesis of this chronic inflammatory disease. However, the unusual phenotype of synovial T cells, including their profound proliferative hyporesponsiveness to TCR ligation, has challenged the notion that T-cell effector responses are driven by cognate cartilage antigens in inflamed synovial joints. The hierarchy of T-cell dysfunction from peripheral blood to inflamed joint suggests that these defects are acquired through prolonged exposure to proinflammatory cytokines such as tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha. Indeed, there are now compelling data to suggest that chronic cytokine activation may contribute substantially to the phenotype and effector function of synovial T cells. Studies reveal that chronic exposure of T cells to TNF uncouples TCR signal transduction pathways by impairing the assembly and stability of the TCR/CD3 complex at the cell surface. Despite this membrane-proximal effect, TNF selectively uncouples downstream signalling pathways, as is shown by the dramatic suppression of calcium signalling responses, while Ras/ERK activation is spared. On the basis of these data, it is proposed that T-cell survival and effector responses are driven by antigen-independent, cytokine-dependent mechanisms, and that therapeutic strategies that seek to restore T-cell homeostasis rather than further depress T-cell function should be explored in the future.

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