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J Immunol. 2007 Jan 15;178(2):732-9.

IL-21 counteracts the regulatory T cell-mediated suppression of human CD4+ T lymphocytes.

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  • 1Dipartimento di Medicina Interna, Universit√† Tor Vergata, Via Montpellier 1, Rome, Italy.


High expression of IL-21 and/or IL-21R has been described in T cell-mediated inflammatory diseases characterized by defects of counterregulatory mechanisms. CD4(+)CD25(+) regulatory T cells (Treg) are a T cell subset involved in the control of the immune responses. A diminished ability of these cells to inhibit T cell activation has been documented in immune-inflammatory diseases, raising the possibility that inflammatory stimuli can block the regulatory properties of Treg. We therefore examined whether IL-21 controls CD4(+)CD25(+) T cell function. We demonstrate in this study that IL-21 markedly enhances the proliferation of human CD4(+)CD25(-) T cells and counteracts the suppressive activities of CD4(+)CD25(+) T cells on CD4(+)CD25(-) T cells without affecting the percentage of Foxp3(+) cells or survival of Treg. Additionally, CD4(+)CD25(+) T cells induced in the presence of IL-21 maintain the ability to suppress alloresponses. Notably, IL-21 enhances the growth of CD8(+)CD25(-) T cells but does not revert the CD4(+)CD25(+) T cell-mediated suppression of this cell type, indicating that IL-21 makes CD4(+) T cells resistant to suppression rather than inhibiting CD4(+)CD25(+) T cell activity. Finally, we show that IL-2, IL-7, and IL-15, but not IL-21, reverse the anergic phenotype of CD4(+)CD25(+) T cells. Data indicate that IL-21 renders human CD4(+)CD25(-) T cells resistant to Treg-mediated suppression and suggest a novel mechanism by which IL-21 could augment T cell-activated responses in human immune-inflammatory diseases.

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