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Objectives: Regulatory T cells (TREG) represent a T cell subset able to modulate immune response by suppressing autoreactive T-lymphocytes. The evidence of a reduced number and an impaired function of this cell population in autoimmune/ inflammatory chronic diseases led to the hypothesis of its involvement in the pathogenesis of these disorders. Glucocorticoid-induced TNFR-related protein (GITR) is a well known marker of murine TREG cells, but little is known in humans. The aim of this study was to investigate the characteristics of TREG cells in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and the potential role of GITR as marker of human TREG. Methods: Nineteen SLE patients and 15 sex- and age-matched normal controls (NC) were enrolled. CD4+ T cells were magnetic sorted from peripheral blood by negative selection. Cell phenotype was analyzed through flow-cytometry using primary and secondary antibodies and real time polymerase-chain reaction (PCR) using TaqMan probes. Results: The CD25highGITRhigh subset was significantly decreased in SLE patients with respect to NC (0.37±0.21% vs 0.72±0.19%; p<0.05). On the opposite, the CD25-GITRhigh cell population was expanded in the peripheral blood of SLE patients (3.5±2.25 vs 0.70±0.32%, p<0.01). Interestingly, FoxP3 at mRNA level was expressed in both CD25- GITRhigh and CD25highGITRhigh cells, suggesting that both cell subsets have regulatory activity. Conclusions: CD4+CD25-GITRhigh cells are increased in SLE as compared to NC. The expression of high level of GITR, but not CD25, on FoxP3+ cells appears to point to a regulatory phenotype of this peculiar T cell subset.
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