Graft versus host disease (GvHD) remains the main cause of non-relapse mortality after allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. In spite of the intense research efforts, control of GvHD remains incomplete and novel therapeutic approaches are required. Cdk2 has a central role in cell cycle re-entry of mature T lymphocytes and inhibition of Cdk2 is mandatory for induction of T cell anergy in vitro and tolerance in vivo. While Cdk2 is essential for expansion of activated T cells, it is not critical for survival of resting lymphocytes, hematopoiesis or thymocyte development. These properties make Cdk2 an attractive target for control of GvHD. To determine the effects of Cdk2 inhibition on T cell alloresponses in vivo, we used the B6D2F1 mouse model of allogeneic BMT and two different Cdk2 inhibitors, CYC202 (IC50=0.1 uM) and CYC205 (IC50=1 nM). Lethally irradiated B6D2F1(Kd) recipients were infused with bone marrow from C57BL/6(Kb) donors with (BMT) or without splenocytes (BM) and were subsequently treated with each Cdk2 inhibitor for three weeks. Treatment was administered daily during week 1, every other day on week 2, and twice a week on week 3. Effects of treatment on GvHD were assessed by body weight and survival during a 70-day period. Although BMT recipients treated with Cdk2 inhibitor displayed a transient initial weight loss, subsequently regained weight to levels comparable to control BM recipients. Furthermore, treated BMT recipient groups displayed significantly delayed GvHD mortality (p=0.0054). Recently, it was determined that inducible CD8+ Treg cells, have a central role in mediating protection from GvHD. Some immunosuppressive drugs have detrimental effects on Treg whereas others spare these cells or may even be beneficial to their proportional increase. To examine whether Cdk2 inhibitors induced Treg cells, we used GFP- T cells from Foxp3.GFP-KI mice (C57BL/6 background) as a source of T cells during BMT. Assessment of peripheral blood lymphocytes, splenocytes, peripheral lymph nodes and intestinal lymphoid cells (ILC) in BMT recipients revealed no differences in CD4+GFP+ Treg between treated and control groups. In contrast, the treated group displayed an increase of CD8+GFP+ Treg cells in these cell populations, predominantly ILC, which displayed a 5-fold increase of CD8+ Treg (p=0.05). To further investigate whether Cdk2 inhibitors had a selective effect on CD8+ Treg differentiation, we isolated CD4+GFP- and CD8+GFP- T cells from Foxp3.GFP-KI mice and subjected them to in vitro Treg polarizing with or without Cdk2 inhibitors. Inhibition of Cdk2 had almost no effect on CD4+GFP+ cells but induced a 2-4 fold increase of CD8+GFP+ cells. To determine whether Cdk2 inhibition induced its effect on CD8+ Treg differentiation by reducing the threshold of TGF-β-mediated signaling, we cultured CD8+GFP- cells with stable concentrations of Cdk2 inhibitors and decreasing concentrations of TGF-β. Cdk2 inhibition induced CD8+ Treg differentiation in the presence of TGF-β concentrations that failed to induce any significant numbers of CD8+ Treg cells when used alone. Expression of FOX family genes is regulated by transcriptional and epigenetic mechanisms. A critical epigenetic regulator of FOX transcription factors in cancer cells is the Polycomb group (PcG) protein, enhancer of zeste homologue 2 (EZH2), which promotes histone H3 lysine 27 trimethylation (H3K27me3) and induces epigenetic gene silencing. Cdk1 and Cdk2 phosphorylate EZH2 at Thr350 in an evolutionarily conserved motif. Phosphorylation of Thr350 is important for EZH2 recruitment and maintenance of H3K27me3 levels at EZH2-target loci. We examined whether EZH2 becomes phosphorylated in CD8+ T cells and whether Cdk2 inhibition might affect this event. Upon polarizing CD8+ T cell culture, EZH2 displayed robust phosphorylation on Thr350, which was blocked by Cdk2 inhibition. This event temporally coincided with a 44-fold increase in Foxp3 mRNA expression compared to base line levels in control T cells. These results reveal an unexpected mechanism via which Cdk2 inhibitors mediate suppression of alloreactive T cells and protection from GvHD by inducing CD8+ Treg. Because Cdk-mediated EZH2 phosphorylation is a key mechanism governing EZH2 function to regulate epigenetic silencing, Cdk2 inhibition might have additional, yet unidentified implications on gene expression programs of alloreactive T cells.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.