Adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP) is emerging as an extracellular signaling molecule playing a pivotal role in several cellular processes, through specific cell membrane purinergic P2 receptors (P2Rs). Under physiological conditions, ATP is present in the extracellular space at low concentrations (1-10 nM), whereas during inflammation and tumor cell growth ATP is present in the extracellular space at high concentrations, when 5–10 mM of ATP are quickly released from cytoplasm following plasma membrane damage or membrane stretching. For these reasons, extracellular ATP, via activation of P2Rs, might be an important regulator of inflammatory and immune response.
CD4+ T cells are often exposed to different ATP concentrations in healthy or in injured/inflamed tissues. In the present study, we investigated the expression of purinergic P2 receptors (P2Rs) on human activated and regulatory CD4+ T cells and tested the lymphocyte functions in presence of low (1-10 nM), intermediate (250 nM) and high (1 mM) concentration of extracellular ATP. We assessed CD4+ T cells proliferation, apoptosis, phenotype, cytokine release, migration and matrix/cells adhesion.
We show that activated CD4+ T cells express all P2Rs subtypes, whereas Tregs do not express P2X6 and P2Y2. At a functional level, low concentrations of extracellular ATP do not modulate CD4+ T cell functions. An increase in ATP concentration (250 nM) stimulates CD4+ T cells during activation: activated CD4+ T cells enhance their proliferation, the secretion of several cytokines critical for T cell functions (IL-2, IL-1b, IFN-g, IL-8), the expression of adhesion molecules (CD49d and CD54) and the capacity to adhere to cellular matrix or to other cells. Tregs seem to be unaffected by 250 nM of ATP. In contrast, high concentrations of ATP (1 mM) “turn off” activated CD4+ T cells and “turn on” Tregs. 1 mM of ATP inhibits activation of CD4+ T cells, by enhancing apoptosis and diminishing proliferation, cell-adhesion and the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Conversely, 1 mM of ATP attracts Tregs and stimulates their proliferation and their capacity to adhere to other cells. Moreover, Tregs cultured in presence of 1 mM of extracellular ATP are more efficient in inhibiting T cell proliferation.
In summary, the present data show that the concentration of extracellular ATP regulates CD4+ T cell functions. Low ATP concentrations, as in physiological conditions, do not affect CD4+ T cell functions, whereas any enhancement of ATP concentration alters CD4+ T cell behavior. Specifically, a small increase stimulates CD4+ T cell activation, whereas a high increase inhibits CD4+ T cell activation and promotes the immunosuppression Tregs-mediated.
We propose that the present in vitro data might explain how in vivo ATP regulates the behavior of activated CD4+ T cells and Tregs in case of inflammation or tumor cell growth. A small enhancement of ATP concentration occurs at the beginning of an inflammatory state or at the first stages of tumor growth; these ATP concentrations alert CD4+ T cells to the presence of a possible damage, which does not yet require Tregs involvement. In contrast, in case of severe inflammation, high ATP concentrations might prevent a further involvement of activated CD4+ T cells and promotes Tregs recruitment, avoiding hyper-inflammation. In case of advanced stages of tumorigenesis, high ATP concentration might be a tumor-escape mechanism, by killing activated CD4+ T cells and by attracting Tregs to surround the tumor.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.