Mechanism and biological significance of CD4-mediated cytotoxicity

Immunol Rev. 1995 Aug;146:57-79. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-065x.1995.tb00684.x.


It is now well established that CD4+ T cells can express cytotoxic activity. This type of cell-mediated cytotoxicity is associated with the Th1-, but not with the Th2-phenotype. While the activation of CD4+ CTL is MHC class II-restricted, the effector phase, i.e. the target cell killing is unrestricted and antigen non-specific. In analogy to CD8+ CTL, CD4-mediated target cell death is by DNA fragmentation. However, the molecular mechanism of killing differs from CD8-mediated lysis. Thus, CD4+ CTL preferentially lyse their targets via Fas-Fas ligand interaction, whereas the major cytotoxic effect of CD8+ CTL is by granule exocytosis, i.e. perforin and granzymes. Although CD8+ CTL can also express the FasL, their lytic activity through interaction with Fas is of less importance. Likewise, some CD4+ CTL may also kill by perforin/granzymes activity, but this pathway is of minor significance. The aims of CD8- or CD4-mediated lysis are also different. Thus, the major task of CD8+ CTL which recognize and kill their targets in the context of MHC class I molecules, is the lysis of virally infected cells and battling against tumor cells. CD4+ CTL, on the other hand, have an immunomodulatory role. Thus, they preferentially eliminate activated MHC class II-positive cells, i.e. APC, be they monocytes/macrophages, B cells or T cells. They may lyse these cells in order to prevent an overreaction of the ongoing immune response or in order to remove potentially hazardous cells upon completion of the immune response. The Fas-FasL pathway is particularly suitable for this task as myeloid or lymphoid cells express Fas only if activated, while FasL is preferentially expressed on activated CD4+ Th1 cells. Moreover, activated T cells eliminate themselves by the Fas-mediated pathway. Whether this happens by fratricide only, or also by suicide or both is open. Moreover, CD4+ CTL are particularly suitable for killing tumor cells as well, as they are efficient effectors in bystander lysis in contrast to CD8+ CTL. On the other hand, the non-specific killing via Fas-FasL interaction, which is an important reason for the bystander lysis, may have unwanted effects in that cells which should not be eliminated could be killed. Such reactions affecting various organs and cells, e.g. the liver, thyroid or islet cells of the pancreas could be an explanation for certain autoimmune diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic / immunology*
  • Humans