Mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells are a novel class of innate-like T cells, expressing a semi-invariant T-cell receptor (TCR) and able to recognize small molecules presented on the non-polymorphic MHC-related protein 1. Their intrinsic effector-memory phenotype, enabling secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and their relative abundance in humans imply a significant potential to contribute to autoimmune processes. However, as MAIT cells were unknown until recently and specific immunological tools were unavailable, little is known of their roles in disease. Here I review observations from clinical studies and animal models of autoimmune and immune-mediated diseases including the roles of MAIT cells in systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and airways diseases. MAIT cell deficiencies are frequently observed in peripheral blood, and at sites of disease such as the airways in asthma. However, MAIT cells have a specific sensitivity to suppression by therapeutic corticosteroids that may confound many of these observations, as may the tendency of the surface marker CD161 to activation-induced down-regulation. Nonetheless, the dependence on bacteria for the development of MAIT cells suggests a potentially important protective role linking the influences of early life microbial exposures and subsequent development of autoimmunity. Conversely, MAIT cells could contribute to chronic inflammation either through TCR-independent activation, or potentially by TCR recognition of as yet undiscovered ligands. Future research will be greatly facilitated by the immunological tools that are now available, including murine genetic models and human and murine specific tetramers.
Keywords: T cells; autoimmunity; inflammation; lung; mucosal.
© 2016 The Authors. Immunology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.