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J Immunol Methods. 2012 Feb 28;376(1-2):1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jim.2011.08.023. Epub 2011 Sep 6.

Phospho-flow cytometry based analysis of differences in T cell receptor signaling between regulatory T cells and CD4+ T cells.

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Department of Surgery (Immunology), Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, 75 Francis Street, Boston, MA 02115, United States.


CD4+ T regulatory cells (Tregs) are activated during auto-immune, injury, and inflammatory responses, however, the molecular events that trigger Treg activation are poorly understood. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether Tregs (FoxP3+ CD4+ T cells) and non-Treg CD4+ T cells might display differences in T cell receptor (TCR) dependent signaling responses following in vitro or in vivo stimulation. This study used phospho-flow cytometry as a tool to profile the kinetics and extent of TCR signaling (ZAP-70 and PKC-θ phosphorylation and expression) in Tregs and non-Tregs. We found that in vitro stimulation with anti-CD3ε induces early and transient activation of ZAP-70 and PKC-θ in both Tregs and non-Tregs. However, the response in Tregs was more rapid and higher in magnitude than responses seen in non-Tregs. In contrast, bacterial superantigen or antigen-specific TCR stimulation did not significantly activate these signaling pathways in Tregs or non-Tregs. Additional experiments tested the kinetics of in vivo TCR signaling in Tregs and non-Tregs in mice challenged with bacterial superantigen. The results of these experiments showed that superantigen rapidly activated ZAP-70 and PKC-θ in lymph node Tregs, but not in non-Tregs. In summary, we demonstrate the versatility of using phospho-flow cytometry to measure cell signaling in CD4+ T cells. The results of these in vitro and in vivo studies demonstrate that Tregs and non-Treg CD4+ T cells show marked differences in their reactivity to TCR-dependent stimulation and contribute new insights into basic mechanisms that lead to Treg activation.

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