Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) is a chronic cholestatic disease of unknown etiopathogenesis showing progressive autoimmune-mediated cholangitis. In PBC patients, the liver and lymphocytes exhibit diminished expression of AE2/SLC4A2, a Cl-/HCO3- anion exchanger involved in biliary bicarbonate secretion and intracellular pH regulation. Decreased AE2 expression may be pathogenic as Ae2a,b(-/-) mice reproduce hepatobiliary and immunological features resembling PBC. To understand the role of AE2 deficiency for autoimmunity predisposition we focused on the phenotypic changes of T cells that occur over the life-span of Ae2a,b(-/-) mice. At early ages (1-9 months), knockout mice had reduced numbers of intrahepatic T cells, which exhibited increased activation, programmed-cell-death (PD)-1 expression, and apoptosis. Moreover, young knockouts had upregulated PD-1 ligand (PD-L1) on bile-duct cells, and administration of neutralizing anti-PD-L1 antibodies prevented their intrahepatic T-cell deletion. Older (≥ 10 months) knockouts, however, showed intrahepatic accumulation of cytotoxic CD8(+) T cells with downregulated PD-1 and diminished apoptosis. In-vitro DNA demethylation with 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine partially reverted PD-1 downregulation of intrahepatic CD8(+) T cells from aged knockouts.
Conclusion: Early in life, AE2 deficiency results in intrahepatic T-cell activation and PD-1/PD-L1 mediated deletion. With aging, intrahepatic CD8+ T cells epigenetically suppress PD-1, and their consequential expansion and further activation favor autoimmune cholangitis.
Keywords: Immune response; Immunity; Immunology and Microbiology Section; Na+-independent Cl−/HCO3− anion exchanger AE2; age-related changes; intracellular pH homeostasis; mouse model of autoimmune cholangitis; self-tolerance breakdown.