Background: Bronchial asthma is associated with an inflammatory process that is characterized by the presence in the airways of large numbers of CD4+ T cells producing interleukin-4 and interleukin-13. However, the CD4 antigen is expressed not only by class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-restricted CD4+ T cells, but also by a newly identified subgroup of T cells, CD1d-restricted natural killer T cells. These cells express a conserved (invariant) T-cell receptor and have a potent immunoregulatory function. Because mouse models of allergic asthma indicate that natural killer T cells are required for the development of allergen-induced airway hyperreactivity, we hypothesized that natural killer T cells play an important role in human asthma.
Methods: We used CD1d-tetramers, antibodies specific for natural killer T cells, as well as reverse-transcriptase-polymerase-chain-reaction analysis of the invariant T-cell receptor of natural killer T cells to assess the frequency and distribution of natural killer T cells in the lungs and in the circulating blood of 14 patients with asthma.
Results: About 60 percent of the pulmonary CD4+CD3+ cells in patients with moderate-to-severe persistent asthma were not class II MHC-restricted CD4+ T cells but, rather, natural killer T cells. The natural killer T cells expressed an invariant T-cell receptor and produced type 2 helper cytokines. In contrast, the CD4+ T cells found in the lungs of patients with sarcoidosis were conventional CD4+CD3+ T cells, not natural killer T cells.
Conclusions: Together with studies in mice indicating a requirement for natural killer T cells in the development of allergen-induced airway hyperreactivity, our results strongly suggest that CD4+ natural killer T cells play a prominent pathogenic role in human asthma.
Copyright 2006 Massachusetts Medical Society.