The allogeneic mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR) is a complex in vitro assay of T-cell recognition and responsiveness in which interleukin-2 (IL-2) plays a central role. We have previously demonstrated that c-kit ligand (KL) can enhance IL-2-induced proliferation in a subset of human natural killer cells expressing the c-kit tyrosine kinase receptor. In the present study, we asked whether KL could enhance IL-2-mediated T-cell proliferation in the allogeneic MLR. We demonstrate that the vast majority of activated human T-cell clones express the c-kit mRNA transcript. Binding studies performed on activated T cells with radioiodinated KL were consistent with the expression of a single class of c-kit receptors. The addition of exogenous KL to the MLR led to an increase in tritiated thymidine (3[H]-TdR) incorporation in the absence of other exogenous cytokines, and did so in a dose-dependent fashion. A reproducible increase in 3[H]-TdR incorporation was noted at concentrations of KL, which approximate those normally found in vivo. Antibody blocking of KL binding to c-kit, T-cell depletion and sorting experiments suggest that the action of KL is mediated at least in part by a direct effect on both CD4+ and CD8+ T-cells. KL's enhancement of the MLR also requires the binding of IL-2 to its high-affinity IL-2 receptor. Given the abundance of KL normally found in human serum, these data suggest that this cytokine may have a role during T-cell activation in vivo.

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