IL-2 consumption by highly activated CD8 T cells induces regulatory T-cell dysfunction in patients with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis

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Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a severe inflammatory condition driven by excessive CD8+ T-cell activation. HLH occurs as both acquired and familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL) forms. In both conditions, a sterile or infectious trigger is required for disease initiation, which then becomes self-sustaining and life-threatening. Recent studies have attributed the key distal event to excessive IFN-γ production; however, the proximal events driving immune dysregulation have remained undefined.


We sought to investigate the role of regulatory T (Treg) cells in the pathophysiology of experimental FHL.


Because mutation in perforin is a common cause of FHL, we used an experimental FHL mouse model in which disease in perforin-deficient mice is triggered by lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). We assessed Treg and CD8+ T-cell homeostasis and activation during the changing systemic conditions in the mice. In addition, human blood samples were collected and analyzed during the HLH episode.


We found no primary Treg cell defects in perforin-deficient mice. However, Treg cell numbers collapsed after LCMV inoculation. The collapse of Treg cell numbers in LCMV-triggered perforin-deficient, but not wild-type, mice was accompanied by the combination of lower IL-2 secretion by conventional CD4+ T cells, increased IL-2 consumption by activated CD8+ T cells, and secretion of competitive soluble CD25. Moreover low Treg cell numbers were observed in untreated patients experiencing HLH flares.


These results demonstrate that excessive CD8+ T-cell activation rewires the IL-2 homeostatic network away from Treg cell maintenance and toward feed-forward inflammation. These results also provide a potential mechanistic pathway for the progression of infectious inflammation to persistent inflammation in patients with HLH.

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