Despite their low frequency of 0,1 - 0,5% in the peripheral blood, human plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDC) are important modulators of adaptive immune responses and have meanwhile taken the step from the bench to promising initial tumor vaccination studies. PDC express high levels of the IL-3-receptor CD123, MHC class II and blood dendritic cell antigens (BDCA)-2 and -4. Apart from secretion of IFN-alpha and their capacity to rapidly initiate antigen-specific CD8+ T cell responses by cross-presentation, they produce large amounts of the serine protease granzyme B (GrB). GrB exhibits various non-cytotoxic functions including T cell regulation and the support of antigen processing and phagocytosis. We therefore hypothesized that pDC may use their GrB for both T cell regulation and for antigen uptake and processing. PDC were isolated using magnetically labeled antibodies against CD123, and cultured in the presence of various stimuli. Here, we demonstrate that pDC are potent producers of enzymatically active GrB, which reached maximal concentrations up to two logs higher than those produced by cytotoxic cells including CTL and NK cells. The strongest inducers of GrB in pDC were IL-3 and IL-10, whereas toll-like receptor (TLR)-7 or TLR-9 ligands such as CpG ODN or imiquimod as well as CD40 ligand suppressed GrB induction. We demonstrate that pDC-derived GrB can suppress effector T cell proliferation by GrB-mediated degradation of the T cell receptor zeta-chain. Moreover, we tested the uptake of fluorescently labeled antigenic material into pDC after lysis of tumor cells by freeze-thaw cycles and irradiation. These studies revealed a correlation between pDC GrB expression and antigen uptake, with GrBhigh pDC taking up significantly more antigenic material than GrBlow pDC. Our data support a novel concept, in which pDC acquire their maximal immunogenic potential in a two-step activation process: First, high levels of GrB are induced by IL-3 and IL-10, thereby supporting antigen processing and uptake into pDC, while preventing precocious activation of T cells. Subsequently, TLR agonists and CD40 ligand turn off GrB in pDC and initiate the transfer of MHC-antigen complexes and co-stimulatory molecules to the pDC surface, resulting in highly immunogenic pDC. Our data may be of translational relevance for the further development of novel DC vaccination strategies in tumor therapy.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

Sign in via your Institution