The liver is essential for inducing immunological tolerance toward harmless antigens to maintain immune system homeostasis. However, the precise cellular mechanisms of tolerance induction against particle-bound antigens, the role of the local hepatic microenvironment, and implications for therapeutic targets in immune-mediated diseases are currently unclear. In order to elucidate cellular mechanisms of tolerance induction in healthy and injured liver, we developed a novel in vivo system combining the systemic delivery of low-dose peptide antigens coupled to inert particles, immunological readouts, and sophisticated intravital multiphoton microscopy-based imaging of liver in mice. We show that liver resident macrophages, Kupffer cells (KCs), but not hepatic monocyte-derived macrophages or dendritic cells (DCs), are the central cellular scavenger for circulating particle-associated antigens in homeostasis. KC-associated antigen presentation induces CD4 T-cell arrest, expansion of naturally occurring Foxp3(+) CD25(+) interleukin-10-producing antigen-specific regulatory T cells (Tregs) and tolerogenic immunity. Particle-associated tolerance induction in the liver protected mice from kidney inflammation in T-cell-mediated glomerulonephritis, indicating therapeutic potential of targeting KC for immune-mediated extrahepatic disorders. Liver inflammation in two independent experimental models of chronic liver injury and fibrosis abrogated tolerance induction and led to an immunogenic reprogramming of antigen-specific CD4 T cells. In injured liver, infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages largely augment the hepatic phagocyte compartment, resulting in antigen redistribution between myeloid cell populations and, simultaneously, KCs lose signature markers of their tolerogenic phenotype.
Conclusions: Hepatic induction of tissue-protective immunological tolerance against particulate antigens is dependent on KCs as well as on a noninflamed liver microenvironment, thereby providing mechanistic explanations for the clinical observation of immune dysfunction and tolerance break in patients with advanced liver diseases.
© 2015 by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.