First published May 30, 2019 - More info
Background: While the human fetal immune system defaults to a program of tolerance, there is concurrent need for protective immunity to meet the antigenic challenges encountered after birth. Activation of T cells in utero is associated with the fetal inflammatory response with broad implications for the health of the fetus and of the pregnancy. However, the characteristics of the fetal effector T cells that contribute to this process are largely unknown.
Methods: We analyzed primary human fetal lymphoid and mucosal tissues and performed phenotypic, functional, and transcriptional analysis to identify T cells with pro-inflammatory potential. The frequency and function of fetal-specific effector T cells was assessed in the cord blood of infants with localized and systemic inflammatory pathologies and compared to healthy term controls.
Results: We identified a transcriptionally distinct population of CD4+ T cells characterized by expression of the transcription factor Promyelocytic Leukemia Zinc Finger (PLZF). PLZF+ CD4+ T cells were specifically enriched in the fetal intestine, possessed an effector memory phenotype, and rapidly produced pro-inflammatory cytokines. Engagement of the C-type lectin CD161 on these cells inhibited TCR-dependent production of IFNγ in a fetal-specific manner. IFNγ-producing PLZF+ CD4+ T cells were enriched in the cord blood of infants with gastroschisis, a natural model of chronic inflammation originating from the intestine, as well as in preterm birth, suggesting these cells contribute to fetal systemic immune activation.
Conclusion: Our work reveals a fetal-specific program of protective immunity whose dysregulation is associated with fetal and neonatal inflammatory pathologies.