CD4+Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) play a central role in the maintenance of immune tolerance after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. We previously reported that low-dose interleukin-2 (IL-2) therapy increased circulating Tregs and improved clinical symptoms of chronic graft-versus-host-disease (cGVHD); however, the mechanisms that regulate Treg homeostasis during IL-2 therapy have not been well studied. To elucidate these regulatory mechanisms, we examined the role of inhibitory coreceptors on Tregs during IL-2 therapy in a murine model and in patients with cGVHD. Murine studies demonstrated that low-dose IL-2 selectively increased Tregs and simultaneously enhanced the expression of programmed cell death 1 (PD-1), especially on CD44+CD62L+ central-memory Tregs, whereas expression of other inhibitory molecules, including CTLA-4, LAG-3, and TIM-3 remained stable. PD-1-deficient Tregs showed rapid Stat5 phosphorylation and proliferation soon after IL-2 initiation, but thereafter Tregs became proapoptotic with higher Fas and lower Bcl-2 expression. As a result, the positive impact of IL-2 on Tregs was completely abolished, and Treg levels returned to baseline despite continued IL-2 administration. We also examined circulating Tregs from patients with cGVHD who were receiving low-dose IL-2 and found that IL-2-induced Treg proliferation was promptly followed by increased PD-1 expression on central-memory Tregs. Notably, clinical improvement of GVHD was associated with increased levels of PD-1 on Tregs, suggesting that the PD-1 pathway supports Treg-mediated tolerance. These studies indicate that PD-1 is a critical homeostatic regulator for Tregs by modulating proliferation and apoptosis during IL-2 therapy. Our findings will facilitate the development of therapeutic strategies that modulate Treg homeostasis to promote immune tolerance.
© 2017 by The American Society of Hematology.