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PLoS Biol. 2017 Jun 20;15(6):e2001930. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2001930. eCollection 2017 Jun.

MAIT cells launch a rapid, robust and distinct hyperinflammatory response to bacterial superantigens and quickly acquire an anergic phenotype that impedes their cognate antimicrobial function: Defining a novel mechanism of superantigen-induced immunopathology and immunosuppression.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada.
Division of General Surgery, Department of Surgery, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.
Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.
Institute of Infection and Immunity, Cardiff University School of Medicine, Cardiff, United Kingdom.
Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia.
Centre for Human Immunology, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada.
Lawson Health Research Institute, London, Ontario, Canada.
Laboratoire d'Immunologie and INSERM U932, Institut Curie, Paris, France.
Division of Transplantation, Department of Surgery, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York, United States of America.
Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Department of Medicine, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada.


Superantigens (SAgs) are potent exotoxins secreted by Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes. They target a large fraction of T cell pools to set in motion a "cytokine storm" with severe and sometimes life-threatening consequences typically encountered in toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Given the rapidity with which TSS develops, designing timely and truly targeted therapies for this syndrome requires identification of key mediators of the cytokine storm's initial wave. Equally important, early host responses to SAgs can be accompanied or followed by a state of immunosuppression, which in turn jeopardizes the host's ability to combat and clear infections. Unlike in mouse models, the mechanisms underlying SAg-associated immunosuppression in humans are ill-defined. In this work, we have identified a population of innate-like T cells, called mucosa-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells, as the most powerful source of pro-inflammatory cytokines after exposure to SAgs. We have utilized primary human peripheral blood and hepatic mononuclear cells, mouse MAIT hybridoma lines, HLA-DR4-transgenic mice, MAIThighHLA-DR4+ bone marrow chimeras, and humanized NOD-scid IL-2Rγnull mice to demonstrate for the first time that: i) mouse and human MAIT cells are hyperresponsive to SAgs, typified by staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB); ii) the human MAIT cell response to SEB is rapid and far greater in magnitude than that launched by unfractionated conventional T, invariant natural killer T (iNKT) or γδ T cells, and is characterized by production of interferon (IFN)-γ, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α and interleukin (IL)-2, but not IL-17A; iii) high-affinity MHC class II interaction with SAgs, but not MHC-related protein 1 (MR1) participation, is required for MAIT cell activation; iv) MAIT cell responses to SEB can occur in a T cell receptor (TCR) Vβ-specific manner but are largely contributed by IL-12 and IL-18; v) as MAIT cells are primed by SAgs, they also begin to develop a molecular signature consistent with exhaustion and failure to participate in antimicrobial defense. Accordingly, they upregulate lymphocyte-activation gene 3 (LAG-3), T cell immunoglobulin and mucin-3 (TIM-3), and/or programmed cell death-1 (PD-1), and acquire an anergic phenotype that interferes with their cognate function against Klebsiella pneumoniae and Escherichia coli; vi) MAIT cell hyperactivation and anergy co-utilize a signaling pathway that is governed by p38 and MEK1/2. Collectively, our findings demonstrate a pathogenic, rather than protective, role for MAIT cells during infection. Furthermore, we propose a novel mechanism of SAg-associated immunosuppression in humans. MAIT cells may therefore provide an attractive therapeutic target for the management of both early and late phases of severe SAg-mediated illnesses.

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