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The TGF-β superfamily cytokine Activin-A is induced during autoimmune neuroinflammation and drives pathogenic Th17 cell differentiation

Wu, B;Zhang, S;Guo, Z;Bi, Y;Zhou, M;Li, P;Seyedsadr, M;Xu, X;Li, JL;Markovic-Plese, S;Wan, YY;

Th17 cells are known to exert pathogenic and non-pathogenic functions. Although the cytokine transforming growth factor β1 (TGF-β1) is instrumental for Th17 cell differentiation, it is dispensable for generation of pathogenic Th17 cells. Here, we examined the T cell-intrinsic role of Activin-A, a TGF-β superfamily member closely related to TGF-β1, in pathogenic Th17 cell differentiation. Activin-A expression was increased in individuals with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and in mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Stimulation with interleukin-6 and Activin-A induced a molecular program that mirrored that of pathogenic Th17 cells and was inhibited by blocking Activin-A signaling. Genetic disruption of Activin-A and its receptor ALK4 in T cells impaired pathogenic Th17 cell differentiation in vitro and in vivo. Mechanistically, extracellular-signal-regulated kinase (ERK) phosphorylation, which was essential for pathogenic Th17 cell differentiation, was suppressed by TGF-β1-ALK5 but not Activin-A-ALK4 signaling. Thus, Activin-A drives pathogenic Th17 cell differentiation, implicating the Activin-A-ALK4-ERK axis as a therapeutic target for Th17 cell-related diseases.