Background: Allergic diseases are frequent and rising in prevalence, and result from activation of T-helper (Th) 2 cells by allergens. CD4+CD25+ regulatory T cells suppress T-cell activation in vitro and prevent pathological findings in animal models of disease. We aimed to investigate whether the amount of inhibition of allergic responses by CD4+CD25+ T cells was related to atopy and allergic disease.
Methods: Blood CD4+CD25+ and CD4+CD25- T cells were isolated from three groups of donors: non-atopic individuals; those atopic with no present symptoms; and patients with hayfever studied during and out of the grass-pollen season. We investigated the ability of CD25+ T cells from these donors to suppress allergen-stimulated T-cell proliferation and cytokine production in vitro.
Findings: CD4+CD25+ T cells from non-atopic donors suppressed proliferation and interleukin 5 production by their own allergen-stimulated CD4+CD25- T cells. Inhibition of proliferation by CD4+CD25+ T cells from atopic donors was significantly reduced (p=0.0012), and was even more diminished by CD4+CD25+ T cells isolated from patients with hayfever during the pollen season (p=0.0003). In patients with hayfever, out-of-season suppression remained less than that seen by regulatory cells from non-atopic donors.
Interpretation: Allergic disease can result from an inappropriate balance between allergen activation of regulatory CD4+CD25+ T cells and effector Th2 cells. This imbalance could result from a deficiency in suppression by regulatory T cells or strong activation signals could overcome such regulation. Treatment to enhance regulatory T-cell responses, in concert with reduction of Th2 cell activation, might be useful in prevention and treatment of allergic disease.