Regulatory T cells (Tregs) that express the transcription factor Foxp3 have a critical role in limiting inflammatory processes and tissue damage. Whether Tregs are functional in maintaining epithelial barriers and in control of tight junction expression has not yet been explored. In this study, we investigated the effect of Treg deficiency on the airway epithelial barrier in an experimental murine model in which diphtheria toxin was repeatedly injected in Foxp3-diphtheria toxin receptor (DTR) mice to deplete Tregs. This resulted in spontaneous peribronchial inflammation and led to a systemic and local increase of IL-4, IL-5, CCL3, IFN-γ, and IL-10 and a local (lung) increase of IL-6 and IL-33 and decreased amphiregulin levels. Moreover, Treg depletion increased airway permeability and decreased epithelial tight junction (protein and mRNA) expression. CTLA4-Ig treatment of Treg-depleted mice almost completely prevented barrier dysfunction together with suppression of lung inflammation and cytokine secretion. Treatment with anti–IL-4 partly reversed the effects of Treg depletion on tight junction expression, whereas neutralization of IL-6 of IFN-γ had either no effect or only a limited effect. We conclude that Tregs are essential to protect the epithelial barrier at the level of tight junctions by restricting spontaneous T cell activation and uncontrolled secretion of cytokines, in particular IL-4, in the bronchi.

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