Front Immunol 2019 20;10:2947. Epub 2019 Dec 20.
Neuroimmunology Unit, Santa Lucia Foundation IRCCS, Rome, Italy.
As the Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello wrote in his novels, identities can be evanescent. Although a quarter of a century has passed since regulatory T cells (Treg) were first described, new studies continue to reveal surprising and contradictory features of this lymphocyte subset. Treg cells are the core of the immunological workforce engaged in the restraint of autoimmune or inflammatory reactions, and their characterization has revealed substantial heterogeneity and complexity in the phenotype and gene expression profiles, proving them to be a most versatile and adaptive cell type, as exemplified by their plasticity in fine-tuning immune responses. Defects in Treg function are associated with several autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, which is caused by an inappropriate immune reaction toward brain components; conversely, the beneficial effects of immunomodulating therapies on disease progression have been shown to partly act upon the biology of these cells. Both in animals and in humans the pool of circulating Treg cells is a mixture of natural (nTregs) and peripherally-induced Treg (pTregs). Particularly in humans, circulating Treg cells can be phenotypically subdivided into different subpopulations, which so far are not well-characterized, particularly in the context of autoimmunity. Recently, Treg cells have been rediscovered as mediators of tissue healing, and have also shown to be involved in organ homeostasis. Moreover, stability of the Treg lineage has recently been addressed by several conflicting reports, and immune-suppressive abilities of these cells have been shown to be dynamically regulated, particularly in inflammatory conditions, adding further levels of complexity to the study of this cell subset. Finally, Treg cells exert their suppressive function through different mechanisms, some of which-such as their ectoenzymatic activity-are particularly relevant in CNS autoimmunity. Here, we will review the phenotypically and functionally discernible Treg cell subpopulations in health and in multiple sclerosis, touching also upon the effects on this cell type of immunomodulatory drugs used for the treatment of this disease.