Inappropriate CD4+ T helper (Th) differentiation can compromise host immunity or promote autoimmune disease. To identify disease-relevant regulators of T cell fate, we examined mutations that modify risk for multiple sclerosis (MS), a canonical organ-specific autoimmune disease. This analysis identified a role for Zinc finger E-box-binding homeobox (ZEB1). Deletion of ZEB1 protects against experimental autoimmune encephalitis (EAE), a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS). Mechanistically, ZEB1 in CD4+ T cells is required for pathogenic Th1 and Th17 differentiation. Genomic analyses of paired human and mouse expression data elucidated an unexpected role for ZEB1 in JAK-STAT signaling. ZEB1 inhibits miR-101-3p that represses JAK2 expression, STAT3/STAT4 phosphorylation, and subsequent expression of interleukin-17 (IL-17) and interferon gamma (IFN-γ). Underscoring its clinical relevance, ZEB1 and JAK2 downregulation decreases pathogenic cytokines expression in T cells from MS patients. Moreover, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved JAK2 inhibitor is effective in EAE. Collectively, these findings identify a conserved, potentially targetable mechanism regulating disease-relevant inflammation.
Keywords: JAK-STATs; T cell differentiation; T helper cells; autoimmunity; immunogenetics; micro-RNA; multiple sclerosis; single-cell RNA-seq; transcription factor.
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