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Arthritis Rheum. 2009 Apr;60(4):1119-28. doi: 10.1002/art.24432.

Effector CD8+ T cells in systemic sclerosis patients produce abnormally high levels of interleukin-13 associated with increased skin fibrosis.

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University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.



T lymphocytes play an important role in systemic sclerosis (SSc), a connective tissue disease characterized by inflammation, fibrosis, and vascular damage. While their precise role and antigen specificity are unclear, T cell-derived cytokines likely contribute to the induction of fibrosis. The aim of this study was to establish the role of cytokine dysregulation by T cells in the pathogenesis of SSc.


To identify relationships between a specific cytokine, T cell subset, and the disease course, we studied a large cohort of patients with diffuse cutaneous SSc (dcSSc) or limited cutaneous SSc (lcSSc). Using Luminex analysis and intracellular cytokine staining, we analyzed the intrinsic ability of CD4+ and CD8+ T cell subsets to produce cytokines following in vitro activation.


High levels of the profibrotic type 2 cytokine interleukin-13 (IL-13) were produced following activation of peripheral blood effector CD8+ T cells from SSc patients as compared with normal controls or with patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In contrast, CD4+ T cells showed a lower and more variable level of IL-13 production. This abnormality correlated with the extent of fibrosis and was more pronounced in dcSSc patients than in lcSSc patients.


Dysregulated IL-13 production by effector CD8+ T cells is important in the pathogenesis of SSc and is critical in the predisposition to more severe forms of cutaneous disease. Our study is the first to identify a specific T cell phenotype that correlates with disease severity in SSc and can be used as a marker of immune dysfunction in SSc and as a novel therapeutic target.

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