Objectives: Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a major obstacle to safe allogeneic hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation, leading to significant mortality. Recently, T-helper (TH)-17 cells have been shown to play a central role in mediating several autoimmune diseases. The aim of our study was to investigate the relationship between TH-17 cells and GVHD occurring in transplanted patients.
Methods: Blood samples were collected from 51 hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation patients and 15 healthy donors. Patients with GVHD were monitored for the presence of TH-17 cells by ELISPOT or flow cytometry in the peripheral blood and by confocal microscopy in GVHD lesions. Cytokine plasma levels were detected by ELISA.
Results: An increased TH-17 population (up to 4.8% of peripheral blood CD4+T lymphocytes) was observed in patients with acute GVHD and (up to 2.4%) in patients with active chronic GVHD along with an inflammatory process. In contrast, the percentage of TH-17 cells drastically decreased in patients with inactive chronic GVHD. TH-17 cells consisted of both interleukin (IL)-17+/interferon (IFN)-gamma- and IL-17+/IFN-gamma+ subsets and expressed IL-23 receptor. Interestingly, IFN-gamma+ TH-17 cells were able to infiltrate GVHD lesions as observed in liver and skin sections. Moreover, the proportion of TH-17 was inversely correlated with the proportion of regulatory T cells observed in the peripheral blood and tissues affected by GVHD. Finally, we demonstrated a strong correlation between TH-17 levels and the clinical status of patients with GVHD.
Conclusions: These findings support the hypothesis that TH-17 are involved in the active phases of GVHD and may represent a novel cellular target for developing new strategies for GVHD treatment.