Under conditions of chronic antigen stimulation, such as persistent viral infection and cancer, CD8 T cells may diminish effector function, which has been termed "exhaustion." Expression of inhibitory Receptors (iRs) is often regarded as a hallmark of "exhaustion." Here we studied the expression of eight different iRs by CD8 T cells of healthy humans, including CTLA-4, PD1, TIM3, LAG3, 2B4, BTLA, CD160, and KLRG1. We show that many iRs are expressed upon activation, and with progressive differentiation to effector cells, even in absence of long-term ("chronic") antigenic stimulation. In particular, we evaluated the direct relationship between iR expression and functionality in CD8 T cells by using anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 stimulation to stimulate all cells and differentiation subsets. We observed a striking up-regulation of certain iRs following the cytokine production wave, in agreement with the notion that iRs function as a negative feedback mechanism. Intriguingly, we found no major impairment of cytokine production in cells positive for a broad array of iRs, as previously shown for PD1 in healthy donors. Rather, the expression of the various iRs strongly correlated with T cell differentiation or activation states, or both. Furthermore, we analyzed CD8 T cells from lymph nodes (LNs) of melanoma patients. Interestingly, we found altered iR expression and lower cytokine production by T cells from metastatic LNs, but also from non-metastatic LNs, likely due to mechanisms which are not related to exhaustion. Together, our data shows that expression of iRs per se does not mark dysfunctional cells, but is rather tightly linked to activation and differentiation. This study highlights the importance of considering the status of activation and differentiation for the study and the clinical monitoring of CD8 T cells.
Keywords: CD8 T cell; T cell exhaustion; activation; differentiation; inhibitory receptors.