Background Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has recently been linked to an exhausted state of CD4+ T cells in peripheral blood of patients . Exhaustion of CD4+ T cells limits their proliferation and increases cell death. In CD8+ T cells smoking counteract exhaustion, which may lead to increased cytotoxic activity exemplified by targeting of cells with high expression of the anti-apoptotic protein survivin . Exhaustion of CD4+ T cells coincides with expression of interferon (IFN) response genes , referred to as the IFN signature. The development of the IFN signature has been suggested to predate RA .
Objectives We investigated how smoking affect the CD4+ T cell population in peripheral blood of RA patients with focus on the exhaustion marker programmed cell death-1 (PD-1).
Methods Blood samples were collected from RA patients and healthy women with different smoking status and analysed for PD-1 and survivin expression using flow cytometry and qPCR. Sorted Th17 cells from peripheral blood were analysed for expression of 18 genes up regulated during exhaustion , herein referred to as the exhaustion set, and serum levels of survivin were assessed by ELISA. Peripheral blood CD4+ cells were analysed for their expression of seven IFN response genes . The role of survivin in the formation of exhausted CD4+ T cells was studied in collagen-induced arthritis (CIA), where mice were treated with nicotine or vaccinated with survivin peptides.
Results High frequency of exhausted PD-1+CD4+ cells was found in smoking RA patients. The numbers of PD1+CD4+ cells correlated inversely with the PD-1 expression by cytotoxic CD8+CD107+ cells (r=-0.62, p=0.01). Additionally, the frequency of PD-1+CD4+ cells increased with reduction of the CD4+ population (r=-0.71, p=0.002). The IFN signature was found exclusively among smoking RA patients. The patients with the IFN signature all had CD4+ cells with low survivin production. Th17 cells from RA patients with high serum survivin were enriched in genes of the exhaustion set. CD4+ cells with high survivin expression were negative for PD-1, while PD-1hi cells had low expression of survivin. In CIA mice the survivinhiPD-1- CD4+ cells were reduced by nicotine treatment (p=0.03) or survivin vaccination (p=0.009).
Conclusions Smoking associates with exhaustion of CD4+ T cells in RA by increasing the frequency of PD-1+CD4+ cells and supporting the IFN signature. Balancing T cell exhaustion and preventing the IFN signature are potential future treatment strategies for RA.
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Disclosure of Interest None declared