The factors that promote the differentiation of pathogenic T cells in autoimmune diseases are poorly defined. Use of genetically modified mice has provided insight into molecules necessary for the development of autoimmunity, but the sum of the data has led to contradictory observations based on what is currently known about specific molecules in specific signaling pathways. To define the minimum signals required for development of encephalitogenic T cells that cause CNS autoimmunity, myelin-specific T cells were differentiated with various cytokine cocktails, and pathogenicity was determined by transfer into mice. IL-6+IL-23 or IL-12+IL-23 generated encephalitogenic T cells and recapitulated the essential cytokine signals provided by antigen-presenting cells, and both IL-6 and IL-12 induced IL-23 receptor expression on both mouse and human naive T cells. IL-23 signaled through both STAT3 and STAT4, and disruption in STAT4 signaling impaired CNS autoimmunity independent of IL-12. These data explain why IL-12–deficient mice develop CNS autoimmunity, while STAT4-deficient mice are resistant. CD4+ memory T cells from multiple sclerosis patients had significantly higher levels of p-STAT3/p-STAT4, and p-STAT3/p-STAT4 heterodimers were observed upon IL-23 signaling, suggesting that p-STAT3/p-STAT4 induced by IL-23 signaling orchestrate the generation of pathogenic T cells in CNS autoimmunity, regardless of Th1 or Th17 phenotype.
Priscilla W. Lee, Alan J. Smith, Yuhong Yang, Amanda J. Selhorst, Yue Liu, Michael K. Racke, Amy E. Lovett-Racke