Th17 cells are an important therapeutic target in autoimmunity. However, it is known that Th17 cells exhibit considerable plasticity, particularly at sites of autoimmune inflammation. Th17 cells can switch to become ex-Th17 cells that no longer produce IL-17 but produce IFN-γ. These ex-Th17 cells are also called nonclassical Th1 cells because of their ability to produce IFN-γ, similar to Th1 cells; however, it is unclear whether they resemble Th1 or Th17 cells in terms of their function and regulation, and whether they have a pathogenic role in autoimmunity. We compared the phenotypic and functional features of human Th17, Th1, and ex-Th17 cell populations. Our data showed that despite their loss of IL-17 expression, ex-Th17 cells were more polyfunctional in terms of cytokine production than either Th1 or bona fide Th17 cells, and produced increased amounts of proinflammatory cytokines. The proliferative brake on Th17 cells appeared to be lifted because ex-Th17 cells proliferated more than Th17 cells after stimulation. In contrast with Th1 and Th17 cells, ex-Th17 cells were highly resistant to suppression of proliferation and cytokines by regulatory T cells. Finally, we showed that ex-Th17 cells accumulated in the joints of rheumatoid arthritis patients. Taken together, these data indicate that human ex-Th17 cells are functionally distinct from Th1 and Th17 cells, and suggest that they may play a pathogenic role at sites of autoimmunity, such as the rheumatoid arthritis joint where they accumulate. These findings have implications for therapeutic strategies that target IL-17, because these may not inhibit pathogenic ex-Th17 cells.
Copyright © 2017 by The American Association of Immunologists, Inc.