CD4(+) Foxp3(+) regulatory T cells (Tregs) depend on CD28 signaling for their survival and function, a receptor that has been previously shown to activate the acid sphingomyelinase (Asm)/ceramide system. In this article, we show that the basal and CD28-induced Asm activity is higher in Tregs than in conventional CD4(+) T cells (Tconvs) of wild-type (wt) mice. In Asm-deficient (Smpd1(-/-); Asm(-/-)) mice, as compared with wt mice, the frequency of Tregs among CD4(+) T cells, turnover of the effector molecule CTLA-4, and their suppressive activity in vitro were increased. The biological significance of these findings was confirmed in our Treg-sensitive mouse model of measles virus (MV) CNS infection, in which we observed more infected neurons and less MV-specific CD8(+) T cells in brains of Asm(-/-) mice compared with wt mice. In addition to genetic deficiency, treatment of wt mice with the Asm inhibitor amitriptyline recapitulated the phenotype of Asm-deficient mice because it also increased the frequency of Tregs among CD4(+) T cells. Reduced absolute cell numbers of Tconvs after inhibitor treatment in vivo and extensive in vitro experiments revealed that Tregs are more resistant toward Asm inhibitor-induced cell death than Tconvs. Mechanistically, IL-2 was capable of providing crucial survival signals to the Tregs upon inhibitor treatment in vitro, shifting the Treg/Tconv ratio to the Treg side. Thus, our data indicate that Asm-inhibiting drugs should be further evaluated for the therapy of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.
Inhibition of Acid Sphingomyelinase Allows for Selective Targeting of CD4+ Conventional versus Foxp3+ Regulatory T Cells.