Th17 cells are responsible for promoting autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis

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Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) have identified why certain cells in the body, known as Th17 cells, go rogue and promote the onset of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

In a new study published in Nature Communications, scientists have discovered a previously unknown and nasty side effect of a bacteria-fighting weapon in the immune system’s arsenal called neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs).

NETs are responsible for directly enhancing the production of harmful Th17 cells.

“This discovery is significant as it provides a novel therapeutic target to disrupt these harmful inflammatory responses,” lead author Dr. Alicia Wilson, from the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz in Germany, said.

“It opens the doors to the development of new therapies targeting this harmful NET-Th17 interaction, hopefully improving treatments for MS and other autoimmune conditions in the future.”

NETs, which are similar in appearance and function to spider webs, are produced by a subset of white blood cells called neutrophils. They capture and kill nasty bacteria and are designed to protect the body from infection. But as ANU researchers demonstrate, NETs also have a “dark side” causing them to manipulate Th17 cells, making them stronger and more dangerous.

Th17 cells are normally beneficial because they defend the body against bacterial and fungal infections, but when over-activated, they can cause serious inflammation. In their aggressive form, Th17 cells are responsible for promoting autoimmune diseases such as MS.

“We found that the NETs cause Th17 cells to become more powerful, which enhances their detrimental effects,” senior author Associate Professor Anne Bruestle, from the ANU Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease, said.

By understanding how NETs turn Th17 cells from friend to foe, scientists believe they can use targeted therapies to inhibit the bad effects of NETs.

Associate Professor Bruestle and a team of international researchers believe a drug originally designed to treat sepsis could be used to target the bad Th17 cells and in turn help patients with MS better manage their condition by providing some reprieve.

The drug was developed by Professor Christopher Parish and his team, also from ANU, and has been more than 10 years in the making.

“Because we see in both mice and humans that a group of proteins in NETs called histones can activate Th17 cells and cause them to become harmful, it makes sense that our histone-neutralizing drug, mCBS, which was developed to treat sepsis, may also be able to inhibit the undesirable effects of NETs which are linked to driving MS,” Professor Parish said.

Associate Professor Bruestle said: “While we cannot prevent autoimmune diseases such as MS, thanks to these types of therapies we hope to treat the condition and make it more manageable for people living with MS.”

This research was a collaboration between ANU, The University of Queensland and Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz in Germany.


T helper (Th)17 cells are considered to contribute to inflammatory mechanisms in diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS). However, the discussion persists regarding their true role in patients. Here, we visualized central nervous system (CNS) inflammatory processes in models of MS live in vivo and in MS brains and discovered that CNS-infiltrating Th17 cells form prolonged stable contact with oligodendrocytes.

Strikingly, compared to Th2 cells, direct contact with Th17 worsened experimental demyelination, caused damage to human oligodendrocyte processes, and increased cell death. Importantly, we found that in comparison to Th2 cells, both human and murine Th17 cells express higher levels of the integrin CD29, which is linked to glutamate release pathways.

Of note, contact of human Th17 cells with oligodendrocytes triggered release of glutamate, which induced cell stress and changes in biosynthesis of cholesterol and lipids, as revealed by single-cell RNA-sequencing analysis.

Finally, exposure to glutamate decreased myelination, whereas blockade of CD29 preserved oligodendrocyte processes from Th17-mediated injury. Our data provide evidence for the direct and deleterious attack of Th17 cells on the myelin compartment and show the potential for therapeutic opportunities in MS.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disabling inflammatory disease of the central nervous system (CNS) characterized by demyelination as a key pathological hallmark (1). Loss of metabolic support and axonal myelination provided by oligodendrocytes not only impairs neurotransmission but also compromises neuronal homeostasis, leading to neuroaxonal vulnerability (2, 3). Chronic demyelination is therefore considered to play a major role in the progression of neurological disability in MS (4⇓–6). The pharmacological protection of oligodendrocytes has been discussed as a new therapeutic strategy for MS (7) and is especially appealing in light of recent results showing that oligodendrocyte damage is partially reversible (8). However, the mechanisms underlying immune-mediated oligodendrocyte injury in neuroinflammation are still only partially understood.

Proinflammatory CD4+ T cells are considered to play a major role in neuroinflammatory processes in MS and in its animal model, experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) (9⇓–11). In particular, interleukin (IL)-23–polarized T helper (Th)17 cells coexpressing T-bet and ROR-γ are considered pathogenic in both EAE (12, 13) and in MS (13⇓–15).

Interestingly, in MS subjects, reduced Th17 responses after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (16) or the exclusion of the double-positive Th17/1 cells from the CNS compartment after treatment with natalizumab (17) is associated with a dramatic decrease in the accumulation or expansion of demyelinating lesions, while interfering with IL-17A-cytokine signaling had moderate effects on disease severity (18).

The capacity of IL-23–skewed Th17 cells to destabilize the blood–brain barrier (BBB) and recruit antigen-presenting cells to the CNS compartment in neuroinflammation is well established (13, 19, 20), but it is not clear whether Th17 cells cause tissue injury themselves. Previous studies have demonstrated that activated CD4+ T cells can exert cytotoxicity toward human and rodent oligodendrocytes (21⇓–23) in vitro and impair remyelination in a toxic mouse model (24).

Of note, older in vitro reports, from prior to the discovery of Th17 cells, using human oligodendrocytic cell lines rather excluded a soluble cytokine mediator of adult oligodendrocyte lysis (21, 25). Therefore, our goal was to unravel the direct influence of Th17 cells on the myelin compartment in neuroinflammation.

reference link : https://www.pnas.org/content/118/34/e2025813118


More information: Neutrophil extracellular traps and their histones promote Th17 cell differentiation directly via TLR2, Nature Communications (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-28172-4

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