Following antigen stimulation, naïve T cells differentiate into memory cells that mediate antigen clearance more efficiently upon repeat encounter. Donor-specific tolerance can be achieved in a subset of transplant recipients, but some of these grafts are rejected after years of stability, often following infections. Whether T cell memory can develop from a tolerant state and whether these formerly tolerant patients develop antidonor memory is not known. Using a mouse model of cardiac transplantation in which donor-specific tolerance is induced with costimulation blockade (CoB) plus donor-specific transfusion (DST), we have previously shown that systemic infection with Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) months after transplantation can erode or transiently abrogate established tolerance. In this study, we tracked donor-reactive T cells to investigate whether memory can be induced when alloreactive T cells are activated in the setting of tolerance. We show alloreactive T cells persist after induction of cardiac transplantation tolerance, but fail to acquire a memory phenotype despite becoming antigen experienced. Instead, donor-reactive T cells develop T cell-intrinsic dysfunction evidenced when removed from the tolerant environment. Notably, Lm infection after tolerance did not rescue alloreactive T cell memory differentiation or functionality. CoB and antigen persistence were sufficient together but not separately to achieve alloreactive T cell dysfunction, and conventional immunosuppression could substitute for CoB. Antigen persistence was required, as early but not late surgical allograft removal precluded the acquisition of T cell dysfunction. Our results demonstrate transplant tolerance-associated T cell-intrinsic dysfunction that is resistant to memory development even after Lm-mediated disruption of tolerance.
Keywords: T cells; exhaustion; memory; tolerance; transplantation.