To investigate the regulation of T follicular regulatory (Tfr) and T follicular (Tfh) cell subtypes by low-dose IL-2 in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
A post hoc analysis was performed in a randomized cohort of SLE patients (n=60) receiving low-dose IL-2 therapy (n=30) or placebo (n=30), along with the standard of care treatment. The primary endpoint was the attainment of SLE responder index-4 (SRI-4) at week 12 in the trial. Twenty-three healthy controls were enrolled for T cell subset detection at the same time as the trial. The t-stochastic neighbor embedding (tSNE) analysis of CD4 T subsets based on immune cells flow cytometry markers was performed to distinguish Tfh, Tfh1, Tfh2, Tfh17, and Tfr cell subsets.
Compared with HC, the frequency of Tfr (CXCR5PD-1 Treg and CXCR5PD-1 Treg) cells was significantly reduced, while the pro-inflammatory Tfh cells were increased in patients with SLE. The imbalanced Tfh cell was associated with several pathogenic factors (anti-dsDNA antibodies (r=0.309, P=0.027) and serum IL-17 (r=0.328, P=0.021)) and SLE Disease Activity Index (SLEDAI) score (r=0.273, P=0.052). Decreased CXCR5PD-1 Treg/Tfh and CXCR5PD-1 Treg/Tfh17 were both associated with increased immunoglobulin M (IgM) (r=-0.448, P=0.002 and r=-0.336, P=0.024, respectively). Efficacy of low-dose IL-2 therapy was associated with a restored Tfr/Tfh cell balance.
These data support the hypothesis that promotion of Tfr is associated with decreased disease activities and that low-dose IL-2 therapy can recover Tfr/Tfh immune balance. Registries ( NCT02465580 ).