Insights Into the Regulatory Requirements for T Follicular Helper Cell Development

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Virginia Tech


During the course of an immune response, CD4+ T helper cells differentiate into a number of subsets including: T helper 1 (TH1), TH2, TH17, and T follicular helper (TFH) populations. The functional diversity of CD4+ T effector cells results in a coordinated, pathogen-specific immune response. For example, the production of IFNγ by TH1 cells is vital for the clearance of intracellular pathogens, while TFH cell engagement with cognate B cells is required for germinal center (GC) formation and the generation of pathogen- and vaccine- induced antibody production. The development of CD4+ subsets is contingent on extracellular signals, in the form of cytokines, and downstream transcriptional networks responsible for promoting the unique gene expression profile for each subset while simultaneously suppressing alternative cell fates. However, the exact composition of, and stage-specific requirements for, these environmental cytokines and transcription factor networks in the governance of TFH cell differentiation remain incompletely understood. The work in this dissertation seeks to understand how cell-extrinsic cytokine signals and cell-intrinsic transcription factor activities are integrated to properly regulate TFH cell development. Here, we demonstrate that in response to decreased IL-2 and constant IL-12 signaling, T helper 1 (TH1) cells upregulate a TFH-like phenotype, including expression of the TFH lineage defining transcription factor Bcl-6. Intriguingly, our work established that signals from IL-12 were required for both the differentiation and function of this TFH-like population. Mechanistically, IL-12 signals are propagated through both STAT3 and STAT4, leading to the upregulation of the TFH associated genes Bcl6, Il21, and Icos, correlating with increased B cell helper activity. Conversely, exposure of these TFH-like cells to IL-7 results in the STAT5-dependent repression of Bcl-6 and subsequent inhibition of the TFH phenotype. Finally, we describe a novel regulatory mechanism wherein STAT3 and the Ikaros zinc finger transcription factors Ikaros and Aiolos cooperate to regulate Bcl-6 expression in these TFH-like cells. Collectively, the work in this dissertation significantly advances our understanding of the regulatory mechanisms that govern TFH cell differentiation, setting the basis for the rational design of novel immunotherapeutic strategies and increasingly effective vaccines.



CD4+ T follicular helper cell, BCL-6, cytokines, interleuckin-2, interleukin-7, interleukin-12, STAT transcription factors, IkZF transcription factors