T cell receptor (TCR) stimulation leads to the expression of the transcription factor thymocyte selection–associated high-mobility group box (TOX). Prolonged TCR signaling, such as encountered during chronic infections or in tumors, leads to sustained TOX expression, which is required for the induction of a state of exhaustion or dysfunction. Although CD8+ memory T (Tmem) cells in mice typically do not express TOX at steady state, some human Tmem cells express TOX but appear fully functional. This seeming discrepancy between mouse and human T cells has led to the speculation that TOX is differentially regulated between these species, which could complicate the interpretation of preclinical mouse model studies. We report here that, similar to TCR-mediated signals, inflammatory cytokines are also sufficient to increase TOX expression in human and mouse Tmem cells. Thus, TOX expression is controlled by the environment, which provides an explanation for the different TOX expression patterns encountered in T cells isolated from specific pathogen–free laboratory mice versus humans. Finally, we report that TOX is not necessary for cytokine-driven expression of programmed cell death 1. Overall, our data highlight that the mechanisms regulating TOX expression are conserved across species and indicate that TOX expression reflects a T cell’s activation state and does not necessarily correlate with T cell dysfunction.
Nicholas J. Maurice, Jacqueline Berner, Alexis K. Taber, Dietmar Zehn, Martin Prlic