Peripheral blood T lymphocytes and T lymphocyte subsets have been quantified in 28 patients with ulcerative colitis and 26 with Crohn's disease by an indirect immunofluorescence technique using monoclonal antibodies: OKT3, which detects all peripheral blood T lymphocytes; OKT4 (T cells of helper phenotype); and OKT8 (T cells of supressor-cytotoxic phenotype). Eighteen normal subjects and 16 patients with a variety of non-inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders were studied as controls. No significant differences were found between patient and control groups in the proportions of circulating T lymphocytes or their subsets. When compared with normal subjects, absolute numbers of T lymphocytes were reduced in patients with active ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease (p less than 0.05). OKT4+ T cell numbers were reduced in ulcerative colitis, whether active (p less than 0.02) or inactive (p less than 0.05) and in active Crohn's disease (p less than 0.05) Numbers of OKT8+ T cells were reduced in active Crohn's disease (p less than 0.01). There were no differences in T lymphocyte numbers between the patient groups and the disease control subjects. The OKT4+:OKT8+ ratio in patients with inflammatory bowel disease did not differ from that in controls. No relation was found between any of the parameters studied and disease activity, site, or extent of disease, or treatment with sulphasalazine or corticosteroids. The presence of Ia-like, HLA-DR antigens on T cells was detected using a double marker immunofluorescence technique. In control subjects up to 7% of OKT3+ cells were HLA-DR+. In only three patients was the proportion of HLA-DR+ cells greater than in controls. These results indicate that the pathogenesis of ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease does not depend upon an alteration in the proportion of circulating T lymphocytes nor upon an imbalance of T lymphocyte subsets as defined by monoclonal antibodies. The reduction in T lymphocyte numbers may result from mucosal infiltration. The findings also suggest that circulating T lymphocytes are not activated.
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