It is currently unclear whether the suppressor cell dysfunction observed during active systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) reflects a primary T cell disorder or one that results from immunologic modulation of suppressor T cell activity by autoantibodies. To determine whether the suppressor T cell dysfunction of active SLE is the result of a primary T cell disorder, the model of adenosine-induced immunosuppression was utilized to study the suppressor T cell functions of 12 patients with SLE (seven active SLE, five inactive SLE) and 12 matched healthy controls. T lymphocyte phenotyping was performed by utilizing monoclonal antibodies directed against T cell-specific determinants. Suppressor T cell functions were assessed by two assays in parallel. The first technique tested the capacity of two suppressor T cell subsets (spontaneous suppressors, Ts; adenosine-inducible suppressors, TRA) to inhibit pokeweed mitogen- (PWM) induced B cell differentiation. In the second technique, the ability of enriched T cell preparations to suppress mitogen- and alloantigen-induced proliferation was assayed. It was demonstrated that brief treatment of the control theophylline-resistant T lymphocyte (TR) subset possessing inducer/helper activity with adenosine (10(-5) M, 30 min, 37 degrees C) triggered a rapid shift in phenotype (RFC gamma -, T-4+ leads to RFC gamma +, T-8+) in a proportion of the subset, and the development of radioresistant suppressor function. By contrast, exposure of active SLE TR to adenosine failed to induce either the switch of phenotype or suppressor activity. When compared to controls, both the TS and TRA suppressors failed to inhibit B cell differentiation (TS, p less than 0.001; TRA, p less than 0.001). Moreover, enriched T cell preparations incompletely suppressed the proliferative responses to phytohemagglutinin (p less than 0.003), PWM (p less than 0.0003), or alloantigens (p less than 0.01). During inactive SLE, the T cell responses were usually restored. Treatment of the TR subsets with adenosine induced a switch of phenotype in four of five patients and the subsequent expression of effective suppressor function. We conclude that a) during active SLE, there is impaired suppression of proliferation and B cell differentiation; b) the impaired suppression of B cell differentiation results from abnormal spontaneous (TS) and adenosine-inducible (TRA) suppressor functions; c) the defective generation of suppressor T cell function during active disease results, in part, from a block in the transition from inducer/helper to suppressor cell; and, d) the suppressor T cell dysfunction is reversible with disease remission. The investigation of immunopharmacologic events by using the adenosine-induced immuno-suppression model in T cells from normal donors and SLE patients may provide insights into the molecular basis of disordered immunoregulation in SLE.

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