RA-responsive mononuclear cells are increased in IL-23–rich human GI-GVHD tissue and are associated with poor outcome.
These cells have a GI-tropic IL-23R+ CD8 effector T-cell phenotype and are expanded by allostimulation in RA- and IL-23–rich conditions.
Gastrointestinal (GI) graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a major barrier in allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (allo-HSCT). The metabolite retinoic acid (RA) potentiates GI-GVHD in mice via alloreactive T cells expressing the RA receptor-α (RARα), but the role of RA-responsive cells in human GI-GVHD remains undefined. Therefore, we used conventional and novel sequential immunostaining and flow cytometry to scrutinize RA-responsive T cells in tissues and blood of patients who had received allo-HSCT and to characterize the impact of RA on human T-cell alloresponses. Expression of RARα by human mononuclear cells was increased after exposure to RA. RARαhi mononuclear cells were increased in GI-GVHD tissue, contained more cellular RA-binding proteins, localized with tissue damage, and correlated with GVHD severity and mortality. By using a targeted candidate protein approach, we predicted the phenotype of RA-responsive T cells in the context of increased microenvironmental interleukin-23 (IL-23). Sequential immunostaining confirmed the presence of a population of RARαhi CD8 T cells with the predicted phenotype that coexpressed the effector T-cell transcription factor T-bet and the IL-23–specific receptor (IL-23R). These cells were increased in GI- but not skin-GVHD tissues and were also selectively expanded in the blood of patients with GI-GVHD. Finally, functional approaches demonstrated that RA predominantly increased alloreactive GI-tropic RARαhi CD8 effector T cells, including cells with the phenotype identified in vivo. IL-23–rich conditions potentiated this effect by selectively increasing β7 integrin expression on CD8 effector T cells and reducing CD4 T cells with a regulatory cell phenotype. In summary, we have identified a population of RA-responsive effector T cells with a distinctive phenotype that is selectively expanded in human GI-GVHD and that represents a potential new therapeutic target.