Immune regulation

Balancing act

Many microbial infections, such as tuberculosis and malaria, are never eliminated completely by our immune system, even though we can be immune to a second attack. Now, a study in Nature shows that regulatory T (TReg) cells at the site of chronic infection might be crucial for parasite persistence and long-lasting immunity.

Infection of C57BL/6 mice with Leishmania major results in a skin lesion that heals after 8–10 weeks, leaving the mouse with long-lasting immunity to the parasite. But, a small number of viable parasites persist. Belkaid and colleagues found that a large number of CD4+ T cells are present at the chronically infected site, of which 40–50% are CD25+.

The lesion-derived CD4+CD25+ T cells did not respond to mitogenic stimuli in vitro and, similar to the naturally occurring CD4+CD25+ TReg cells that have been described in autoimmune settings, they could suppress proliferation and the secretion of effector cytokines (such as interferon-γ, IFN-γ) by CD4+CD25 effector T cells.

When stimulated with L. major-infected dendritic cells (DCs) in vitro, CD4+CD25+ T cells from the chronic lesion produced large amounts of interleukin-10 (IL-10), but little IFN-γ or T helper 2 (TH2) cytokines, such as IL-4 or IL-5. This seems to be an antigen-specific response, as DCs that were infected with other parasites or activated with CD40 failed to induce the secretion of IL-10.

To test the function of these putative TReg cells in vivo, lesion-derived T-cell subsets were transferred into lymphopaenic (Rag−/−) mice, which were then infected with L. major. Mice that received CD4+CD25 T cells were highly resistant to infection, whereas those that received CD4+CD25+ T cells developed severe disease. Mice that received a 1 to 10 ratio of CD25+ to CD25 T cells developed a healing lesion with persistent parasites, similar to the response of wild-type mice. This shows clearly that CD4+CD25+ lesion-derived T cells can suppress L. major immunity. Additional adoptive-transfer experiments indicated that these regulatory cells originate from the naturally occurring CD4+CD25+ regulatory T-cell pool.

This study shows that a fine balance between regulatory and effector T cells might be essential for parasite persistence. But, it seems that this phenomenon is not just of benefit to the parasite. IL-10-deficient mice clear infection completely, but, unlike wild-type mice, they do not have long-lived immunity. So, by allowing the persistence of parasites, IL-10-secreting TReg cells might benefit the host by maintaining protective immunity.



  1. 1

    Belkaid, Y. et al. CD4+ CD25+ regulatory T cells control Leishmania major persistence and immunity. Nature 420, 502–507 (2002)


  1. 2

    Shevach, E. M. CD4+CD25+ suppressor T cells: more questions than answers. Nature Rev. Immunol. 2, 389–400 (2002)

  2. 3

    Sacks, D. & Noben-Trauth, N. The immunology of susceptibility and resistance to Leishmania major in mice. Nature Rev. Immunol. 2, 845–858 (2002)

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Bell, J. Balancing act. Nat Rev Immunol 3, 3 (2003).

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