Background: The function of T helper cell subsets in vivo depends on their location, and one hallmark of T cell differentiation is the sequential regulation of migration-inducing chemokine receptor expression. CC-chemokine receptor 6 (CCR6) is a trait of tissue-homing effector T cells and has recently been described as a receptor on T helper type 17 (Th17) cells. Th17 cells are associated with autoimmunity and the defence against certain infections. Although, the polarization of Th cells into Th17 cells has been studied extensively in vitro, the development of those cells during the physiological immune response is still elusive.
Methodology/principal findings: We analysed the development and functionality of Th17 cells in immune-competent mice during an ongoing immune response. In naïve and vaccinated animals CCR6(+) Th cells produce IL-17. The robust homeostatic proliferation and the presence of activation markers on CCR6(+) Th cells indicate their activated status. Vaccination induces antigen-specific CCR6(+) Th17 cells that respond to in vitro re-stimulation with cytokine production and proliferation. Furthermore, depletion of CCR6(+) Th cells from donor leukocytes prevents recipients from severe disease in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, a model for multiple sclerosis in mice.
Conclusions/significance: In conclusion, we defined CCR6 as a specific marker for functional antigen-specific Th17 cells during the immune response. Since IL-17 production reaches the highest levels during the immediate early phase of the immune response and the activation of Th17 cells precedes the Th1 cell differentiation we tent to speculate that this particular Th cell subset may represent a first line effector Th cell subpopulation. Interference with the activation of this Th cell subtype provides an interesting strategy to prevent autoimmunity as well as to establish protective immunity against infections.