Background and Objectives During pregnancy, gammadelta T cells expand at the fetomaternal interface where they induce a tolerogenic milieu. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) experience a spontaneous improvement of their disease during pregnancy and a postpartum aggravation. By contrast, pregnant patients with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) often experience persistent active disease.
We hypothesised that the pregnancy related modulation of disease activity in RA patients versus AS patients is associated with numerical and functional changes of circulating gammadelta T cells.
Material and Methods The frequency of surface markers and the intracellular cytokine profile of freshly isolated gammadelta T cells from RA (n = 54) and AS (n = 26) patients and healthy controls (n = 40) were analysed at each trimester during pregnancy and 6-8 weeks postpartum by flow cytometry.
Results Very discrete changes of Vdelta1 or Vdelta2 frequency were seen during pregnancy and postpartum in healthy controls and AS patients. In RA, however, the frequency of Vdelta2 cells decreased in the third trimester when disease activity was low. Low percentages of Vdelta 2 cells were also found in non-pregnant RA patients with active arthritis, yet only pregnant RA patients showed reduced percentages of Vdelta2 cells positive for the activation marker CD69 and the intracellular cytokine TNFalpha. Similarly, Vdelta1 + TNFalpha + cells were lower in pregnant RA patients compared to non-pregnant RA patients. The percentage of Vdelta2 + TNFalpha + cells, Vdelta2+ CD69+ and Vdelta1+ CD69+ cells correlated with disease activity in RA. As for the receptors which modulate cytotoxicity, RA patients showed a rise of the anti-cytotoxic receptor NKG2A on Vdelta1 cells in the 2nd trimester and a decrease postpartum. Since the pro-cytotoxic receptor NKG2D remained unchanged, the NKG2D/NKG2A ratio on Vdelta1 cells was reduced in RA patients during pregnancy.
In AS patients, persistent disease activity during pregnancy was reflected by an increased frequency of Vdelta2+ CD69+ cells and an unchanged frequency of Vdelta2+ TNFalpha+ cells. In addition, pregnant AS patients showed an increased frequency of Vdelta1+CD161+ cells.
Conclusions Disease amelioration of RA during pregnancy correlates with changes of cell activation, pro-inflammatory cytokines and anti-cytotoxic receptors of gammadelta T cells. By contrast, active disease during pregnancy as found in AS is associated with unchanged inflammatory responses of gammadelta T cells. Since gammadelta T cells remain unchanged in healthy pregnant controls, the modulation of gammadelta T cells in RA rather seems to be an effect of improved disease than of pregnancy itself.