Background: About 70% of children with milk allergy tolerate extensively heated milk (HM) products and outgrow their allergy earlier than those who react to HM.
Objective: To test the hypothesis that HM-tolerant children have a higher precursor frequency of adaptive allergen-specific regulatory T (Treg) cells.
Methods: Allergic, HM-tolerant, outgrown, or control subjects were defined by oral food challenge. PBMCs were cultured with purified caseins and controls for 7 days, and proliferating CD25(+)CD27(+) Treg cells were identified by flow cytometry. Proliferating cells were also characterized for their expression of FoxP3, CTLA 4, CD45RO, and CD127. Allergen-specific Treg cell origin and function were assessed by depletion of CD25(hi) cells before culture.
Results: There was a higher percentage (median [25th% to 75th%], 16.85% [7.1-31.7]) of proliferating allergen-specific CD25(+)CD27(+) T cells from cultures of HM-tolerant subjects (n = 18) than subjects with allergy (n = 8; 4.91% [2.6-7.5]; P < .01). Control subjects with no history of milk allergy (n = 7) also had low percentages of these cells (2.9% [2.4-6.0]), whereas outgrown subjects (n = 7) had intermediate percentages (9.0% [2.7-16.4]). There were no significant differences between the patient groups in the frequency of polyclonal Treg cells or allergen-specific effector T cells. Allergen-specific Treg cells were found to be FoxP3(+)CD25(hi)CD27(+), cytotoxic T lymphocyte-associated antigen 4(+), CD45RO(+)CD127(-) and were derived from circulating CD25(hi) T cells. Depletion of the CD25(hi) cells before in vitro culture significantly enhanced allergen-specific effector T-cell expansion.
Conclusion: A higher frequency of milk allergen-specific Treg cells correlates with a phenotype of mild clinical disease and favorable prognosis.