Background: Corneal allograft survival dramatically decreases in hosts with inflamed or vascularized recipient beds. We have previously shown that in rejected corneal allografts regulatory T cells (Treg) demonstrate diminished Foxp3 expression and immunoregulatory function. Treatment with low doses of IL-2 selectively expands Treg and has been proposed for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. In this study, we investigated the effect of low-dose IL-2 administration on Treg function and corneal allograft survival.
Methods: Allogeneic corneal transplantation was performed on inflamed host beds. Low-dose systemic IL-2 was administered starting 3 days before grafting until 6 weeks after transplantation. Frequencies of Treg and their immunosuppressive function and antigen specificity were assessed using flow cytometry, in vitro proliferation assays, and adoptive transfer experiments. Frequencies of effector T cells (Teff) and graft infiltrating immune cells were measured at 2 weeks posttransplantation. Long-term allograft survival was evaluated for up to 9 weeks using Kaplan-Meier survival analysis.
Results: Treatment with low-dose IL-2 significantly increased frequencies of CD4CD25Foxp3 Treg and their immunosuppressive function. It also suppressed alloimmune response as shown by the decreased CD4 IFNγ T cell frequencies and graft infiltration of CD45 and CD4 cells. Clinical evaluation of the grafts showed significant improvement in long-term corneal allograft survival in the IL-2 treated group compared with controls.
Conclusions: Our study is the first to report that treatment with low-dose IL-2 increases survival of corneal allografts. We propose that IL-2-mediated Treg expansion can be an effective tool to prevent alloimmunity and to improve long-term allograft survival in transplantation.