In this work we studied CD4+FOXP3+ populations in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and the relationship with Th cytokine production. We found an increment in CD25-FOXP3+ population in SLE associated with CD4+ downregulation and disease progression. CD25low cells were also upregulated and showed increased percentages of FOXP3+ and CD127-/low cells, supporting the activated status of SLE lymphocytes. Despite the normal levels of CD25highFOXP3+ cells, the negative correlations observed in controls with the frequency of IFNγ, TNFα and IL-10 secreting cells were disrupted in patients, supporting a defective Treg function. Also, CD25high cells showed an altered balance in the production of these cytokines. In addition, CD25highFOXP3+ cells correlated directly with IL-17A and IL-8 but not with TGFβ in SLE. The increased proportion of IL-17+ cells among the CD25high subset and the positive correlation between IL-17 levels and Treg cells suggest a trans-differentiation of Treg into Th17 cells in SLE.
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