Background: Although in vitro IL-4 directs CD4 T cells to produce T helper 2 (Th2)-cytokines, these cytokines can be induced in vivo in the absence of IL-4-signalling. Thus, mechanism(s), different from the in vitro pathway for Th2-induction, contribute to in vivo Th2-differentiation. The pathway for in vivo IL-4-independent Th2-differentiation has yet to be characterized.
Findings: Helios (ikzf2), a member of the Ikaros transcription regulator family, is expressed in thymocytes and some antigen-matured T cells as well as in regulatory T cells. It has been proposed that Helios is a specific marker for thymus-derived regulatory T cells. Here, we show that mouse ovalbumin-specific CD4 (OTII) cells responding to alum-precipitated ovalbumin (alumOVA) upregulate Th2 features - GATA-3 and IL-4 - as well as Helios mRNA and protein. Helios is also upregulated in follicular helper T (TFh) cells in this response. By contrast, OTII cells responding to the Th1 antigen - live attenuated ovalbumin-expressing Salmonella - upregulate Th1 features - T-bet and IFN-γ - but not Helios. In addition, CD4 T cells induced to produce Th2 cytokines in vitro do not express Helios. The kinetics of Helios mRNA and protein induction mirrors that of GATA-3. The induction of IL-4, IL-13 and CXCR5 by alumOVA requires NF-κB1 and this is also needed for Helios upregulation. Importantly, Helios is induced in Th2 and TFh cells without parallel upregulation of Foxp3. These findings suggested a key role for Helios in Th2 and TFh development in response to alum-protein vaccines. We tested this possibility using Helios-deficient OTII cells and found this deficiency had no discernable impact on Th2 and TFh differentiation in response to alumOVA.
Conclusions: Helios is selectively upregulated in CD4 T cells during Th2 and TFh responses to alum-protein vaccines in vivo, but the functional significance of this upregulation remains uncertain.