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J Immunol. 2006 Aug 15;177(4):2088-96.

TLR7 ligands induce higher IFN-alpha production in females.

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Institute for Clinical Immunology and Transfusion Medicine, Justus-Liebig University, Langhansstrasse 7, D-35392 Giessen, Germany.


IFN-alpha exercises multiple immune modulatory and antiviral activities and has been suggested to play a critical role in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) release IFN-alpha upon TLR7 and TLR9 ligation. With respect to the nine times higher incidence of SLE in women and the clinical use of synthetic TLR ligands as novel immune adjuvants, we analyzed IFN-alpha and TNF-alpha production in healthy human individuals. Blood samples were incubated with synthetic TLR7 and TLR9 ligands. In three independent groups (n(1) = 120, n(2) = 101, and n(3) = 123), analysis revealed a capacity of female PBLs to produce significantly higher IFN-alpha levels after TLR7 stimulation (p(1) < 0.0000001, p(2) < 0.0000001, and p(3) < 0.0001) compared with male PBLs. In contrast, no sex differences were evident after TLR9 stimulation. TNF-alpha production after TLR7 stimulation and also total pDC numbers were not different between females and males. X-inactivation escape of the TLR7 gene was investigated in monoclonal B cell lines and, independently, in pDCs after cell sorting and single-cell picking, indicating regular silencing of one TLR7 allele in females. Additionally, exogenous 17beta-estrogen and estrogen receptor antagonism did not indicate a significant role on TLR7-induced IFN-alpha production. Our data reveal for the first time a profound sex-dependent pathway of TLR7-induced IFN-alpha with higher production in females. These findings may explain the higher prevalence of SLE in females and the reported decreased therapeutic efficacy of synthetic TLR7 ligands in male individuals.

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