Background and aims Inappropriate immune responses contribute to the continuous stimulation of the intestinal immune system in chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Among several pathogenic factors, a numerical deficiency of regulatory T (Treg) cells has been suggested to lead to an insufficient compensation of chronically activated T lymphocytes. This study was conducted to investigate whether increased apoptosis contributes to Treg cell deficiency in IBD and whether successful treatment with antitumour necrosis factor α (TNFα) is achieved by reducing of Treg cell apoptosis.
Methods Apoptosis of CD4+Foxp3+ Treg cells in tissue sections of patients with active IBD was analysed by immunohistochemistry and TUNEL (terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labelling) staining. Apoptosis of peripheral blood CD4+CD25+Foxp3+ Treg cells was investigated by flow cytometry and annexin-V staining. In addition, caspase activity and apoptosis were measured in sera of patients with IBD treated with anti-TNFα by a luminometric caspase enzyme assay.
Results It is demonstrated that patients with active IBD revealed increased apoptosis of local CD4+Foxp3+ Treg cells in the inflamed mucosa compared with non-inflamed control colon tissue. Moreover, in peripheral blood a reduced frequency and increased apoptosis of Treg cells were found and accompanied by elevated caspase activity in the serum. During anti-TNFα treatment, Treg cell apoptosis declined in close correlation with elevated peripheral Treg cell numbers and a decrease of caspase activation and disease activity.
Conclusions These data suggest that increased apoptosis of Treg cells plays a potentially important role in the pathogenesis of IBD and can be reversed by anti-TNFα treatment. Measurement of Treg cell apoptosis and serum caspase activity might therefore represent promising tools for monitoring disease activity and treatment response in patients with IBD.
- inflammatory bowel disease
- Treg cells
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CV and MA contributed equally to this work.
Funding This study was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SFB773, SFB685, TRR77, GRK1302, BA 2092/2-1, BA 2092/9-1) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, No. 01FP09104B and AID-Net project).
Competing interests None.
Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the Hannover Medical School and University of Heidelberg.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.