Targeting Regulatory T Cells for Transplant Tolerance: New Insights and Future Perspectives

Kidney Dis (Basel). 2018 Nov;4(4):205-213. doi: 10.1159/000490703. Epub 2018 Jul 31.


Background: Organ transplantation is considered the ultimate therapy for end-stage organ disease. While pharmacologic immunosuppression is the mainstay of therapeutic strategies to prolong the survival of the graft, long-term use of immunosuppressive medications carries the risk of organ toxicity, malignancies, serious opportunistic infections, and diabetes. Therapies that promote recipient tolerance in solid organ transplantation are able to improve patient outcomes by eliminating the need for long-term immunosuppression.

Summary: Establishing tolerance to an allograft has become an area of intense study and would be the ideal therapy in clinical practice. The discovery of a subset of T cells naturally committed to perform immunoregulation has led to further investigation into their role in the immunopathogenesis of transplantation. Evidence suggests that regulatory T cells (Tregs) are fundamentally involved in promoting allograft tolerance. Efforts to characterize specific markers for Tregs, while challenging, have identified Foxp3 gene expression as a crucial step in promoting the tolerance-inducing features of Tregs. A number of approaches, including those based on targeting the glycogen synthase kinase 3β signaling pathway or activating the melanocortinergic pathway, have been tested as a way to promote Treg lineage commitment and maintenance as well as to facilitate immune tolerance. In order to be effective in clinical practice, Tregs must be allospecific and possess a specific phenotype to avoid suppression of other aspects of the immune system or increasing the risk of malignancy or infections. Multiple experimental and clinical studies have demonstrated the impact of currently used immunosuppressants on the immunoregulatory activities of Tregs and their Foxp3 expression status. Pharmacological induction of tolerogenic Tregs for inducing transplant tolerance, including epigenetic therapies, is in the ascendant.

Key messages: Therapies that promote Treg function and survival may represent a novel strategy for achieving immune tolerance in transplant patients.

Keywords: Allograft; Glycogen synthase kinase 3β; Immune tolerance; Immunosuppressants; Melanocortin; Regulatory T cells; Transplant.

Publication types

  • Review