Growing evidence demonstrates that the highly conserved serine/threonine kinase CK2 promotes Th17 cell differentiation while suppressing the generation of Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Tregs); however, the exact mechanism by which CK2 regulates the Th17/Treg axis remains unclear. CK2 can be composed of three distinct subunits: two catalytic subunits, CK2α and CK2α′, and the regulatory subunit CK2β. We generated mice that lack the major catalytic subunit of CK2, CK2α, specifically in mature T cells using the distal Lck-Cre (CK2α−/−). Importantly, CK2α deficiency resulted in a significant decrease in the overall kinase activity of CK2. Further, CK2α deficiency resulted in a significant defect in Th17 cell polarization and a reciprocal increase in Tregs both in vitro and in vivo in the context of autoimmune neuroinflammation. The transcription factor forkhead box protein O1 (FoxO1) directly inhibits Th17 cell differentiation and is essential for the generation of Tregs. CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells exhibit less phosphorylated FoxO1 and a corresponding increase in the transcription of FoxO1-regulated genes. Treatment of CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells with the FoxO1 inhibitor AS1842856 or short hairpin RNA knockdown of FoxO1 is sufficient to rescue Th17 cell polarization. Through use of a genetic approach to target CK2 kinase activity, the current study provides evidence of a major mechanism by which CK2 regulates the Th17/Treg axis through the inhibition of FoxO1.

Protein kinase CK2 is a highly conserved and constitutively active serine/threonine kinase that promotes survival and proliferation in many tumor cells (1, 2). The CK2 holoenzyme is composed of two catalytic subunits, CK2α and/or CK2α′, associated with two regulatory subunits, CK2β, each encoded by separate genes. The regulatory subunit is not essential for the catalytic activity of CK2α/α′ but confers specificity and therefore can direct the phosphorylation of certain substrates in a cell- and environment-specific manner (1). With over 500 identified target proteins, CK2 is capable of promoting the activation of numerous signaling pathways, ultimately leading to increased cell survival, proliferation, and inflammation (24). One key signaling network sensitive to CK2 activity is PI3K/Akt/mTOR (5). CK2 phosphorylation of PTEN results in the inhibition of phosphatase activity and relief of PTEN-mediated inhibition of PI3K (6). In addition, direct phosphorylation of S129 Akt by CK2 leads to enhanced kinase activity of Akt compared with that of S473 phosphorylation alone (7).

The PI3K/Akt/mTOR pathway is essential for the function of CD4+ T cells. Strong signals through the pathway downstream of activation drive the differentiation of effector CD4+ T cells, whereas inhibition promotes the generation of Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Tregs) (810). One mechanism by which Akt regulates T cell differentiation is through the negative regulation of the transcription factor forkhead box protein O1 (FoxO1) (11). When phosphorylated by Akt, FoxO1 is sequestered in the cytosol and is therefore unable to promote the transcription of FoxO1-regulated genes (12). In the context of CD4+ T cell differentiation, FoxO proteins promote the expression of Foxp3 and additional genes essential for the generation and function of Tregs (13, 14). In addition, FoxO1 can directly bind and inhibit the activity of Th17-promoting transcription factor RORγt (15).

Using the pharmacologic inhibitor CX-4945, which targets both CK2α and CK2α′, we previously demonstrated a critical role for CK2 in promoting Th17 cell differentiation at the expense of Tregs (16); however, the molecular basis by which CK2 regulates the Th17/Treg axis remains unclear. In this study, we demonstrate that deletion of CK2α in CD4+ T cells is sufficient to significantly decrease overall kinase activity and target the Th17/Treg axis both in vitro and during experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a murine model of multiple sclerosis. In addition, we demonstrate that regulation of the Th17/Treg axis by CK2 is dependent on the activity of FoxO1. Inhibition of FoxO1 in CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells resulted in a near complete rescue of Th17 cell differentiation, accompanied by significant inhibition of Foxp3 expression. Our findings provide mechanistic evidence that CK2 promotes Th17 cell differentiation and suppresses Tregs through the negative regulation of the transcription factor FoxO1.

Csnk2a1fl/fl mice were obtained from Dr. H. Rebholz (City College of New York, New York, NY) (17). Distal Lck-Cre (dLckCre) mice were purchased from Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, ME). Mice were crossed to create offspring that were homozygous for the floxed Csnk2a1 gene and heterozygous for dLckCre, allowing for the generation of CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− littermates. CK2αfl/fl, CK2α−/−, and Rag1−/− mice were maintained in the animal facility at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Male and female mice between 8 and 12 wk old were used for all experiments. All experiments using animals were reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The FoxO1 inhibitor AS1842856 was purchased from Calbiochem and reconstituted in DMSO for in vitro studies.

Murine cytokines used for in vitro polarizations were purchased from BioLegend. Anti-mouse CD3, anti-mouse CD28, and neutralizing Abs to murine IL-4 and IFN-γ were purchased from Bio X Cell. Abs to CK2α, phosphorylated S129 Akt, total Akt, phosphorylated T24 FoxO1, and total FoxO1 were purchased from Cell Signaling Technology. Ab to mouse β-actin was purchased from Abcam. Flow cytometry Abs against mouse CD3, CD4, CD8, CD25, IL-17A, and IFN-γ were purchased from BioLegend. Flow cytometry Abs against mouse CD44, CD62L, CD69, Foxp3, and GM-CSF were purchased from eBioscience. Flow cytometry Abs for phosphorylated STAT3, STAT5, S6, and Akt were purchased from Cell Signaling Technology. Aqua LIVE/DEAD Viability dye and CFSE proliferation dye were purchased from Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Naive CD4+ T cells were enriched from the spleens of 8–12-wk-old mice using the Naive CD4+ T Cell Kit purchased from STEMCELL Technologies. Cells were cultured at a density of 0.75–1 × 106 cells/ml in RPMI 1640 supplemented with 10% FBS, l-glutamine, HEPES buffer, sodium pyruvate, 2-ME, and penicillin/streptomycin (R10). Cells were activated with plate-bound anti-CD3 (10 μg/ml) and soluble anti-CD28 (1 μg/ml) for activation and polarization experiments. Th1 polarizing conditions were IL-12 (10 ng/ml) and anti–IL-4 (10 μg/ml); Th2 polarizing conditions were IL-4 (10 ng/ml) and anti–IFN-γ (10 μg/ml); Th17 conditions were IL-6 (20 ng/ml), TGF-β1 (2.5 ng/ml), IL-23 (10 ng/ml), anti–IL-4 (10 μg/ml), and anti–IFN-γ (10 μg/ml); and Treg polarizing conditions were TGF-β1 (5 ng/ml), IL-2 (5 ng/ml), anti–IL-4 (10 μg/ml), and anti–IFN-γ (10 μg/ml). Cells were polarized for 72 h unless otherwise noted.

For surface protein detection, cells were incubated with Fc Block (2.4G2) for 15 min, washed, and incubated with viability dye and antisurface protein Abs. For intracellular CK2 subunit and phosphorylated protein detection, cells were permeabilized with 70 and 90% MeOH, respectively. For cytokine detection, cells were stimulated with PMA (25 ng/ml) and ionomycin (1 μg/ml) in the presence of GolgiStop (BD Biosciences) for 4 h and were permeabilized using the Foxp3 Staining Buffer Kit (eBioscience). For in vitro proliferation assays, naive CD4+ T cells were incubated in CFSE dye, washed, and activated with plate-bound anti-CD3 and soluble CD28 Abs for 72 h. Stained cells were run on an LSRII flow cytometer (BD Biosciences), and data were analyzed using FlowJo software (Tree Star). Representative flow plots are gated on live CD4+ cells unless otherwise noted.

CD4+ T cells were lysed in buffer containing 1% Triton X-100 (Sigma-Aldrich), and protein lysate was separated by electrophoresis, transferred to a nitrocellulose membrane, and blotted with immunoblotting Abs, as previously described (18). Quantification of immunoblots were performed using ImageJ.

The Casein Kinase 2 Assay Kit (Millipore) was used to assess CK2 kinase activity, as previously described (19). Normalized cell numbers were lysed and both catalytic subunits, CK2α and CK2α′, were immunoprecipitated. Resulting lysates were incubated with CK2-specific peptide sequence and 32P-labeled ATP. The reaction was quenched, and the release of 32P was measured with a scintillation counter.

CD3 and CD3+ cells were sorted from the spleens of CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice using an FACSAria cell sorter. Genomic DNA was extracted from sorted cells using the Wizard SV Genomic Purification System (Promega). PCR was performed using a Csnk2a1 primer (forward: 5′-GAGTCATCTGTCATCTGTAGC-3′; reverse: 5′-GACCACATCCTAACTATCC-3′), and the resulting product was separated on an agarose gel.

Total RNA was isolated from cells using Trizol extraction. For quantitative RT-PCR (qRT-PCR) analysis, 500–1000 ng of RNA was used to reverse transcribe into cDNA. cDNA was subjected to qRT-PCR using TaqMan primers purchased from Thermo Fisher Scientific. The data were analyzed using the comparative cycle threshold method to obtain relative quantitation values.

Naive CD4+ T cells from CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were activated under Th0 conditions (anti-CD3 [1 μg/ml], anti-CD28 [1 μg/ml], anti–IFN-γ [10 μg/ml], and anti–IL-4 [10 μg/ml]). On days 1 and 2 postactivation, cells were infected with retrovirus-containing, short hairpin RNA (shRNA)–targeting CD8 (control) or shRNA-targeting FoxO1 and containing an Ametrine reporter. CD4+ T cells were then removed from CD3 and CD28 stimulation and expanded for another 2 d in the presence of IL-2 (2 ng/ml). Ametrine+ CD4+ T cells were sorted on day 4 for assessment of knockdown efficiency and Th17 cell polarization.

Active EAE was induced in CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice using MOG35–55 emulsified in CFA purchased from Hooke Laboratories, as previously described (18). For Th17 adoptive transfer EAE, donor mice were immunized with MOG35–55 emulsified in CFA, and on day 10–14, lymph node cells were extracted and cultured in Th17-polarized media containing MOG35–55 (50 μg/ml), IL-6 (10 ng/ml), IL-23 (10 ng/ml), IL-1β (10 ng/ml), and neutralizing Abs to IFN-γ (10 μg/ml) and IL-4 (10 μg/ml). After 4 d in culture, CD4+ cells were isolated using DynaBeads, and 2–5 × 106 cells were transferred using i.p. injection into Rag1−/− recipients. All EAE mice were monitored daily and scored on a scale of 0 to 5: 0, no disease; 1, tail paralysis; 2, hind limb paresis; 3, complete hind limb paralysis; 4, front limb weakness and hind limb paralysis; and 5, moribund state. Mononuclear cells were isolated from the spinal cords of immunized mice using a Percoll gradient, as previously described (18, 20), and were assessed by flow cytometry.

Levels of significance for comparison between two groups were determined by one-sided two-sample Mann–Whitney rank-sum test, in the case of EAE scores, and by Student t test distribution. A p value <0.05 was considered statistically significant. All error bars represent SEM.

Global deletion of CK2α is embryonically lethal (21). To target CK2 activity using a genetic approach, we chose to delete the major catalytic subunit of CK2/CK2α, specifically in mature T cells. Csnk2a1fl/fl mice (CK2αfl/fl), in which exon 2, containing the ATP binding site, can be excised by homologous recombination (17), were crossed with mice expressing Cre recombinase controlled by the distal Lck promoter (22). The resulting Csnk2a1fl/fl dLckCre (CK2α−/−) mice experienced T cell–specific deletion of Csnk2a1 (Fig. 1A). CK2α−/− mice appeared phenotypically normal up to 12 wk of age, with no signs of systemic or organ-specific inflammation. CK2α−/− mice had comparable numbers of cells and distributions of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in the spleen and lymph nodes compared with CK2αfl/fl littermates (Fig. 1B, 1C). In addition, CK2α−/− mice had a comparable distribution of peripheral naive and effector T cells, as detected by CD44 and CD62L expression (Fig. 1D), and Tregs, as assessed by CD25 and Foxp3 expression (Fig. 1E).

FIGURE 1.

Characterization of CK2α−/− mice. (A) CD3 and CD3+ cells were sorted from the spleens of CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice, genomic DNA was isolated, and Csnk2a1 was detected by PCR. (B) Cells from the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were counted. n = 2. (C) Cells from the spleen and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were stained with anti-CD4 and anti-CD8 Abs for detection by flow cytometry. (D) Cells from the spleen and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were stained with anti-CD62L and anti-CD44 Abs for detection by flow cytometry. Plots are gated on live, CD4+ cells. (E) Cells from the spleens and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were stained with anti-CD25 and anti-Foxp3 Abs for detection by flow cytometry. Plots are gated on CD4+ cells.

FIGURE 1.

Characterization of CK2α−/− mice. (A) CD3 and CD3+ cells were sorted from the spleens of CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice, genomic DNA was isolated, and Csnk2a1 was detected by PCR. (B) Cells from the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were counted. n = 2. (C) Cells from the spleen and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were stained with anti-CD4 and anti-CD8 Abs for detection by flow cytometry. (D) Cells from the spleen and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were stained with anti-CD62L and anti-CD44 Abs for detection by flow cytometry. Plots are gated on live, CD4+ cells. (E) Cells from the spleens and lymph nodes of 12-wk-old CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were stained with anti-CD25 and anti-Foxp3 Abs for detection by flow cytometry. Plots are gated on CD4+ cells.

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Naive CD4+ T cells from CK2α−/− mice lacked Csnk2a1 mRNA and expressed comparable mRNA levels of the other CK2 subunits, Csnk2a2 (CK2α′) and Csnk2b (CK2β), as cells from CK2αfl/fl littermates (Fig. 2A). We previously demonstrated that expression of the CK2 subunits is induced upon CD4+ T cell activation with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs (16). Interestingly, deletion of CK2α resulted in a significant reduction in Csnk2a2 and Csnk2b mRNA expression upon activation, demonstrating a dependence of the expression of these subunits on the activity of CK2α. This finding provides evidence that CK2 may regulate its own expression in T cells, as demonstrated previously in a cancer cell line (23). Further, CK2α protein was undetectable in CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells. CK2α deletion resulted in a significant decrease in overall CK2 kinase activity, as demonstrated by decreased phosphorylation of Akt1 at the CK2-specific site S129 (Fig. 2B), and a kinase activity assay using radio-labeled ATP (Fig. 2C). Importantly, these findings validate our genetic approach to target CK2.

FIGURE 2.

CK2α deficiency in CD4+ T cells results in decreased CK2 kinase activity and Akt/mTOR signaling upon activation. Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated with plate-bound anti-CD3 (10 μg/ml) and soluble anti-CD28 (1 μg/ml) Abs for 24 h. (A) RNA was extracted, and qRT-PCR was performed using primers for Csnk2a1 (CK2α), Csnk2a2 (CK2α′), and Csnk2b (CK2β). n = 4. (B) Cells were lysed and immunoblotted for CK2α, phosphorylated Akt S129, total Akt, and β-actin. (C) Cells were assayed for CK2 kinase activity. n = 2 technical replicates. Representative experiment of three individual experiments is shown. (D and E) Phosphorylated Akt S473 and S6 ribosomal protein S235/236 were detected by flow cytometry. pAkt, n = 3. pS6, n = 4. (F) Cells were lysed and immunoblotted for phosphorylated 4EBP1 T37/46, total 4EBP1, and β-actin. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

FIGURE 2.

CK2α deficiency in CD4+ T cells results in decreased CK2 kinase activity and Akt/mTOR signaling upon activation. Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated with plate-bound anti-CD3 (10 μg/ml) and soluble anti-CD28 (1 μg/ml) Abs for 24 h. (A) RNA was extracted, and qRT-PCR was performed using primers for Csnk2a1 (CK2α), Csnk2a2 (CK2α′), and Csnk2b (CK2β). n = 4. (B) Cells were lysed and immunoblotted for CK2α, phosphorylated Akt S129, total Akt, and β-actin. (C) Cells were assayed for CK2 kinase activity. n = 2 technical replicates. Representative experiment of three individual experiments is shown. (D and E) Phosphorylated Akt S473 and S6 ribosomal protein S235/236 were detected by flow cytometry. pAkt, n = 3. pS6, n = 4. (F) Cells were lysed and immunoblotted for phosphorylated 4EBP1 T37/46, total 4EBP1, and β-actin. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

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The Akt/mTOR signaling pathway is activated in response to CD4+ T cell activation and plays a key role in regulating CD4+ T cell function (810). In addition, we have previously shown this pathway to be sensitive to CK2 inhibition in CD4+ T cells (16). CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells exhibited a significant decrease in phosphorylation of Akt at S473, which is essential for Akt activity (Fig. 2D). In addition, CK2α−/− cells exhibited decreases in the phosphorylation of the downstream targets of mTOR complex 1 such as ribosomal protein S6 (Fig. 2E) and 4EBP1 (Fig. 2F) compared with CK2αfl/fl cells upon activation. These findings demonstrate a specific role of CK2α in promoting Akt/mTOR signaling in CD4+ T cells upon activation.

A major function of CK2 activity is the promotion of cell survival (1). Therefore, before moving forward with functional experiments, it was important to determine the effect of CK2α deficiency on CD4+ T cell viability in vitro. CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells did not experience significantly altered cell survival in vitro, as measured by viability dye uptake 24 and 72 h postactivation (Fig. 3A).

FIGURE 3.

CK2α expression is not required for CD4+ T cell survival, activation, or proliferation. Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated with plate-bound anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs. (A) At 24 and 72 h, cells were incubated with viability dye, and the frequency of live cells was detected by flow cytometry. (B and C) At 24 h, CD25 and CD69 expression was detected by flow cytometry. n = 7. (D) At 24 h, IL-2 in the supernatants of activated CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− cells was measured by ELISA. n = 5. (E) At 24 h, phosphorylated STAT5 Y694 was detected by flow cytometry. MFI of activated cells was normalized to corresponding naive controls. n = 5 (F) Cells were incubated in CFSE dye and activated with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs for 72 h. Percentage of proliferation represents the frequency of cells undergoing at least two divisions as measured by CFSE dilution. n = 3. *p < 0.05. MFI, mean fluorescence intensity.

FIGURE 3.

CK2α expression is not required for CD4+ T cell survival, activation, or proliferation. Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated with plate-bound anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs. (A) At 24 and 72 h, cells were incubated with viability dye, and the frequency of live cells was detected by flow cytometry. (B and C) At 24 h, CD25 and CD69 expression was detected by flow cytometry. n = 7. (D) At 24 h, IL-2 in the supernatants of activated CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− cells was measured by ELISA. n = 5. (E) At 24 h, phosphorylated STAT5 Y694 was detected by flow cytometry. MFI of activated cells was normalized to corresponding naive controls. n = 5 (F) Cells were incubated in CFSE dye and activated with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs for 72 h. Percentage of proliferation represents the frequency of cells undergoing at least two divisions as measured by CFSE dilution. n = 3. *p < 0.05. MFI, mean fluorescence intensity.

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We next sought to determine the potential contribution of CK2α to CD4+ T cell activation and first examined the effect of CK2α deficiency on the expression of activation markers. CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells activated with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs exhibited no significant difference in CD25 or CD69 expression compared with CK2αfl/fl cells after 24 h (Fig. 3B, 3C). In addition, CK2α−/− cells exhibited no defect in IL-2 production or signaling through STAT5 (Fig. 3D, 3E). To determine the potential effect of CK2α deficiency on proliferation, CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− cells were incubated with CFSE dye prior to activation. CK2α−/− cells exhibited a small but significant decrease in proliferation, as determined by the frequency of cells undergoing more than two divisions in 72 h (Fig. 3F). Although small differences were detected, together these data demonstrate that CK2α is largely dispensable for CD4+ T cell survival, activation, and proliferation.

We next examined if CK2α played a critical role in regulating CD4+ T cell differentiation. CK2α−/− cells had no significant defect in polarization to the IFN-γ–producing Th1 or IL-4–producing Th2 phenotypes (Fig. 4A, 4B). Alternatively, CK2α−/− cells had a significantly enhanced capacity to differentiate into Foxp3+ Tregs (Fig. 4C). Most strikingly, CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells had a significantly impaired capacity to differentiate into the Th17 phenotype and exhibited a higher frequency of Foxp3+ cells than CK2αfl/fl cells in Th17 conditions (Fig. 4D). Inhibition of IL-17A production was associated with suppressed basal and IL-6–induced STAT3 phosphorylation (Fig. 4E) and significant inhibition of the expression of a panel of Th17 effector genes, as detected by qRT-PCR (Fig. 4F). The robust increase in Foxp3 also occurred at the level of Foxp3 gene expression (Fig. 4G). These data demonstrate a critical role of CK2α in regulating early signaling events that ultimately determine the fate of the Th17 and Treg transcriptional programs.

FIGURE 4.

CK2α deficiency selectively suppresses Th17 cell differentiation and promotes the generation of Foxp3+ Tregs. (A) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th1 phenotype for 72 h, and IFN-γ production was measured by flow cytometry. n = 3. (B) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th2 phenotype for 72 h, and IL-4 production was measured by flow cytometry. n = 3. (C) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Treg phenotype for 72 h, and Foxp3 expression was measured by flow cytometry. n = 6. (D) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h. IL-17A production and Foxp3 expression were measured by flow cytometry. n = 6. (E) CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated for 24 h in the absence or presence of IL-6 (10 ng/ml), and phosphorylated STAT3 Y705 was detected by flow cytometry. Representative experiment of three individual experiments is shown; numbers represent mean fluorescence intensity. (F and G) RNA was extracted from Th17 cultures, and expression of Th17-associated genes (F) and Foxp3 (G) was detected by qRT-PCR. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

FIGURE 4.

CK2α deficiency selectively suppresses Th17 cell differentiation and promotes the generation of Foxp3+ Tregs. (A) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th1 phenotype for 72 h, and IFN-γ production was measured by flow cytometry. n = 3. (B) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th2 phenotype for 72 h, and IL-4 production was measured by flow cytometry. n = 3. (C) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Treg phenotype for 72 h, and Foxp3 expression was measured by flow cytometry. n = 6. (D) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h. IL-17A production and Foxp3 expression were measured by flow cytometry. n = 6. (E) CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated for 24 h in the absence or presence of IL-6 (10 ng/ml), and phosphorylated STAT3 Y705 was detected by flow cytometry. Representative experiment of three individual experiments is shown; numbers represent mean fluorescence intensity. (F and G) RNA was extracted from Th17 cultures, and expression of Th17-associated genes (F) and Foxp3 (G) was detected by qRT-PCR. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

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To determine if CK2α is critical for regulating the differentiation of Th17 cells and Tregs in vivo, we used a murine model of multiple sclerosis, EAE. CK2α−/− mice exhibited significantly lower clinical scores during the peak and resolution phases of the disease course compared with CK2αfl/fl littermates (Fig. 5A). The total number of infiltrating mononuclear cells into the spinal cord at the peak of disease did not differ between groups (Fig. 5B). However, protection observed at the peak of disease in CK2α−/− mice was associated with a decrease in CD4+ T numbers and a significant decrease in frequencies of CD4+ T cells present in the spinal cord (Fig. 5B), potentially reflecting a defect in either migration or proliferation. Further, CK2α−/− mice had significantly decreased frequencies of IL-17A+ cells present in the inflamed spinal cord (Fig. 5C, 5D). Pathogenic Th17 cells that coproduce IFN-γ and GM-CSF were also significantly reduced compared with CK2αfl/fl littermates (Fig. 5C, 5E). Consistent with our in vitro findings, the defect was specific to Th17 cells, as the CK2α deficiency had no significant effect on frequencies of IL-17AIFN-γ+ and IL-17AGM-CSF+ T cells (Fig. 5E). In addition, protection observed during disease resolution in CK2α−/− mice was associated with significantly higher frequencies of CD25+Foxp3+ Tregs in the spinal cord than CK2α−/− littermates. (Fig. 5F, 5G). Importantly, these data demonstrate a critical role for CK2α in regulating Th17 and Treg differentiation in vivo.

FIGURE 5.

CK2α deletion results in impaired Th17 cell and enhanced Treg differentiation during EAE. (A) CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− were immunized with MOG35–55 in CFA and scored daily for signs of clinical disease. n = 7 mice per group. Data are combined from three separate experiments. (B) At disease peak, between day 14 and 16 postimmunization, mononuclear cells (MNCs) were enriched from the spinal cords, and CD4 expression was detected by flow cytometry. Total numbers of enriched MNCs and numbers and frequencies of CD4+ cells are shown. (C) Cytokine production from CD4+ T cells in the spinal cords was detected by flow cytometry on MNCs. Cells are gated on live CD4+ CD44+ cells. (D and E) Frequencies of total IL-17A+, IFN-γ+, and GM-CSF+ cells (D) and single and double cytokine-producing cells (E) are quantified. CK2αfl/fl, n = 8 mice. CK2α−/−, n = 6 mice. Data are combined from three separate experiments. (F) During disease resolution, between day 22 and 24 postimmunization, MNCs were enriched from the spinal cords, and Tregs were detected by expression of CD25 and Foxp3 by flow cytometry. (G) Frequencies of Tregs in the spinal cord during resolution are quantified. n = 7 mice per group. Data are combined from three separate experiments. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

FIGURE 5.

CK2α deletion results in impaired Th17 cell and enhanced Treg differentiation during EAE. (A) CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− were immunized with MOG35–55 in CFA and scored daily for signs of clinical disease. n = 7 mice per group. Data are combined from three separate experiments. (B) At disease peak, between day 14 and 16 postimmunization, mononuclear cells (MNCs) were enriched from the spinal cords, and CD4 expression was detected by flow cytometry. Total numbers of enriched MNCs and numbers and frequencies of CD4+ cells are shown. (C) Cytokine production from CD4+ T cells in the spinal cords was detected by flow cytometry on MNCs. Cells are gated on live CD4+ CD44+ cells. (D and E) Frequencies of total IL-17A+, IFN-γ+, and GM-CSF+ cells (D) and single and double cytokine-producing cells (E) are quantified. CK2αfl/fl, n = 8 mice. CK2α−/−, n = 6 mice. Data are combined from three separate experiments. (F) During disease resolution, between day 22 and 24 postimmunization, MNCs were enriched from the spinal cords, and Tregs were detected by expression of CD25 and Foxp3 by flow cytometry. (G) Frequencies of Tregs in the spinal cord during resolution are quantified. n = 7 mice per group. Data are combined from three separate experiments. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

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To determine the intrinsic ability of CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells to become pathogenic effector cells capable of mediating neuroinflammation, we used an adoptive transfer approach. MOG-reactive CD4+ T cells from the lymph nodes of previously immunized CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were expanded in Th17 conditions and transferred into Rag1−/− recipients. Although the donor cells were similar in phenotype upon transfer (Fig. 6A), CK2α−/− cells exhibited a significantly impaired ability to facilitate EAE (Fig. 6B), demonstrating an essential role for CK2α in promoting the functional pathogenicity of Th17 cells. After transfer, recipients of CK2α−/− Th17 cells exhibited significantly fewer mononuclear cells and a significant decrease in the frequency of CD4+ T cells present in the spinal cord (Fig. 6C). In addition, CK2α−/− cells transferred into recipient mice displayed lower frequencies of Th17 cells and enhanced Foxp3 expression during active disease (Fig. 6D, 6E). These data further demonstrate that CK2α regulates the Th17/Treg axis. In addition, these data provide evidence that CK2α is essential for Th17 cell maintenance, recruitment to the spinal cord, and overall pathogenicity in the context of EAE.

FIGURE 6.

CK2α promotes Th17 cell pathogenicity in adoptive transfer EAE. (A) CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were immunized, and on day 10–14 postimmunization, lymph nodes were cultured in Th17 conditions. Cytokine production was determined by flow cytometry. A representative plot from three separate experiments is shown. (B) Cells were adoptively transferred into Rag1−/− recipients, and recipient mice were scored daily. n = 8 mice per group. (C) At disease peak, mononuclear cells were enriched from the spinal cords and counted, and CD4 expression was detected by flow cytometry. (D) At disease peak, effector T cells from the spleens were stained for IL-17A and IFN-γ. Representative flow plots and combined frequencies of total IL-17A+ and IFN- γ+ CD4+CD44+ T cells are shown. (E) Tregs in the spleens of recipient mice were identified by Foxp3. Representative flow plots and combined frequencies of Foxp3+ cells are shown. CK2αfl/fl, n = 5. CK2α−/−, n = 3. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

FIGURE 6.

CK2α promotes Th17 cell pathogenicity in adoptive transfer EAE. (A) CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were immunized, and on day 10–14 postimmunization, lymph nodes were cultured in Th17 conditions. Cytokine production was determined by flow cytometry. A representative plot from three separate experiments is shown. (B) Cells were adoptively transferred into Rag1−/− recipients, and recipient mice were scored daily. n = 8 mice per group. (C) At disease peak, mononuclear cells were enriched from the spinal cords and counted, and CD4 expression was detected by flow cytometry. (D) At disease peak, effector T cells from the spleens were stained for IL-17A and IFN-γ. Representative flow plots and combined frequencies of total IL-17A+ and IFN- γ+ CD4+CD44+ T cells are shown. (E) Tregs in the spleens of recipient mice were identified by Foxp3. Representative flow plots and combined frequencies of Foxp3+ cells are shown. CK2αfl/fl, n = 5. CK2α−/−, n = 3. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

Close modal

One downstream target of Akt that has a major role in regulating the differentiation of Th17 cells and Tregs is the transcription factor FoxO1 (13, 14). When phosphorylated by Akt, FoxO1 remains sequestered in the cytosol where it is unable to promote expression of target genes such as Foxp3, Klf2, and Eomes. Consistent with the observed decrease in Akt phosphorylation (Fig. 2B, 2D, 2E), CD4+ T cells that lack CK2α had substantially less phosphorylated FoxO1 after activation (Fig. 7A). In addition, CK2α−/− cells polarized to the Th17 phenotype exhibited substantially reduced phosphorylation of FoxO1 than CK2αfl/fl cells (Fig. 7B). Decreased FoxO1 phosphorylation in Th17 cultures resulted in an increased expression of the FoxO1-regulated genes Eomes and Klf2 (Fig. 7C) and, as shown previously, expression of Foxp3 (Fig. 4G). These data demonstrate that CK2α promotes phosphorylation of FoxO1 in CD4+ T cells, therefore inhibiting its transcriptional activity.

FIGURE 7.

Impaired Th17 cell differentiation and enhanced Foxp3+ expression in CK2α−/− cells is dependent on FoxO1. (A) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs for 24 h, lysed, and immunoblotted for phosphorylated FoxO1 T24, total FoxO1, and β-actin. (B) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h, lysed, and immunoblotted for phosphorylated FoxO1 T24, total FoxO1, and β-actin. Relative quantifications are normalized to total FoxO1. n = 3. (C) RNA was extracted from Th17 cultures, and expression of FoxO1-regulated genes was detected by qRT-PCR. n = 3. (D and E) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h in the presence of DMSO or 25 nM AS1842856. IL-17A and Foxp3 expression were detected by flow cytometry. n = 7. (F) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated and infected with retrovirus-containing shRNA targeted to either CD8 or FoxO1 and expressing the reporter Ametrine. Ametrine+ cells were sorted, and FoxO1 gene expression was detected by qRT-PCR. (G) Ametrine+ cells were sorted and polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h. IL-17A and Foxp3 expression were detected by flow cytometry. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

FIGURE 7.

Impaired Th17 cell differentiation and enhanced Foxp3+ expression in CK2α−/− cells is dependent on FoxO1. (A) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated with anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 Abs for 24 h, lysed, and immunoblotted for phosphorylated FoxO1 T24, total FoxO1, and β-actin. (B) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h, lysed, and immunoblotted for phosphorylated FoxO1 T24, total FoxO1, and β-actin. Relative quantifications are normalized to total FoxO1. n = 3. (C) RNA was extracted from Th17 cultures, and expression of FoxO1-regulated genes was detected by qRT-PCR. n = 3. (D and E) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h in the presence of DMSO or 25 nM AS1842856. IL-17A and Foxp3 expression were detected by flow cytometry. n = 7. (F) Naive CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− CD4+ T cells were activated and infected with retrovirus-containing shRNA targeted to either CD8 or FoxO1 and expressing the reporter Ametrine. Ametrine+ cells were sorted, and FoxO1 gene expression was detected by qRT-PCR. (G) Ametrine+ cells were sorted and polarized to the Th17 phenotype for 72 h. IL-17A and Foxp3 expression were detected by flow cytometry. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.

Close modal

In addition to being essential for the generation of Tregs, studies have shown that FoxO1 directly suppresses the generation of Th17 cells (15). We next sought to determine if the impaired Th17 cell differentiation and enhanced Treg differentiation in CK2α−/− cells was dependent on increased FoxO1 transcriptional activity using the FoxO1 inhibitor AS1842856 (25 nM). FoxO1 inhibition in CK2α−/− cells resulted in the near-complete rescue of IL-17A expression and significant inhibition of Foxp3 (Fig. 7D, 7E). In addition to pharmacologic inhibition, we targeted FoxO1 expression using shRNA. CD4+ T cells from CK2αfl/fl and CK2α−/− mice were infected with retrovirus-containing shRNA targeted to either CD8 or FoxO1 and expressing the reporter Ametrine. Postinfection, Ametrine+ cells infected with FoxO1 shRNA had markedly reduced FoxO1 gene expression compared with those infected with CD8 shRNA (Fig. 7F). Importantly, knockdown of FoxO1 was sufficient to rescue Th17 cell differentiation in CK2α−/− cells (Fig. 7G). Together, the data from these two approaches support that CK2α promotes Th17 cell differentiation and suppresses Tregs through the inhibition of the transcription factor FoxO1.

We previously demonstrated that targeting CK2 with the pharmacologic inhibitor CX-4945, which inhibits both CK2α and CK2α′, inhibited Th17 cell differentiation and promoted the generation of Foxp3+ Tregs (16). In this study, we employ a genetic approach to target CK2 activity by specifically deleting CK2α, the major catalytic subunit of CK2, in mature T cells, which proved sufficient to significantly decrease overall kinase activity (Fig. 2C). In addition to validating our previous findings with CX-4945, our current findings demonstrate a dominant role for CK2α in regulating the Th17/Treg axis, and further, a lack of ability of CK2α′ to compensate in its absence. Interestingly, Ulges et al. (24) described a similar effect on Th17 and Treg polarization with the deletion of the regulatory subunit CK2β, demonstrating that the catalytic activity of CK2 alone is not sufficient to drive Th17 cell differentiation, but regulation of substrate specificity conferred by CK2β is also essential. Although many studies have elucidated the role of CK2 in regulating numerous signaling pathways, the regulation of CK2 itself is not well understood (1). Together, our findings highlight a need to further understand the understudied mechanisms that regulate CK2 activity and specificity in the context of CD4+ T differentiation.

In this study, we also demonstrate that regulation of the Th17/Treg axis by deletion of CK2α occurs in vivo in the context of EAE (Fig. 5). In addition to a decrease in total IL-17+ CD4+ T cells infiltrating the spinal cord during the peak of disease symptoms, CK2α−/− mice had significantly decreased frequencies of Th17 cells that coproduce IFN-γ and GM-CSF (Fig. 4E). These data support a role for CK2 in promoting the maturation of Th17 cells to the particularly pathogenic, double-producing phenotype (25, 26). We also demonstrated regulation of Th17 cell maturation by CK2 using pharmacologic inhibition of CK2 kinase activity (16). The more specific targeting of CK2α in Th17 cells will provide the tools necessary to define mechanisms by which CK2 regulates the pathogenic functions of lineage-committed Th17 cells, with further implications on disease outcome.

Although CK2α−/− mice experience significant protection at later stages of EAE, the protection seen with the T cell–specific deletion was not as profound as protection previously demonstrated with global inhibition using CX-4945 treatment (16). One explanation for this discrepancy is an overlooked role for CK2 activity in other cell types relevant to EAE. De Bourayne et al (27) recently described a role for CK2 activity in monocyte-derived dendritic cells to promote inflammatory cytokine production and their capacity to polarize Th1 and Th17 cells, demonstrating a potential role for CK2 in the inflammatory function of myeloid cells in EAE. In addition, Ulges et al. (24) demonstrated a more complete protection from EAE when CK2β was deleted from CD4+ cells in the periphery using a tamoxifen-inducible Cre, which may suggest subtle differences in CK2 function between the late stages of thymic maturation and activation in the periphery. Lastly, when interpreting the EAE data, it is important to consider that the CK2α−/− mice also lack CK2α in CD8+ T cells, a subset relevant to EAE in which the role of CK2 has yet to be examined (28).

Ultimately, employing a genetic approach to target CK2 activity enabled us to perform mechanistic studies without the confounding potential off-target effects of using a pharmacologic inhibitor. Inhibition of FoxO1 was able to nearly completely reverse the effects of CK2α deletion on the Th17/Treg axis, demonstrating a CK2/FoxO1 axis–governing CD4+ T cell differentiation. We demonstrate that CK2α deletion results in decreased Akt phosphorylation at S473 (Fig. 2E). Phosphorylated by mTOR complex 2, this site reflects an overall decrease in pathway activation in the absence of CK2α. In addition, targeting CK2α results in the absence of phosphorylation of the CK2-specific site S129 on Akt1. Although we primarily use phosphorylation at S129 as a readout for CK2 kinase activity, this isoform-specific phosphorylation site is known to enhance Akt activity above S473 phosphorylation alone (5). Consequently, the Akt-mediated inhibitory phosphorylation of FoxO1, which leads to decreased transcriptional activity, was decreased in CK2α−/− cells (Fig. 7A, 7B). Although we propose this indirect regulation of Foxo1 by CK2 to be important for the regulation of CD4+ T cell differentiation, we cannot rule out the possibility of a direct interaction between CK2 and FoxO1, considering its immense pleiotropy (4). Further, important roles for FoxO1 outside of regulation of the Th17/Treg axis in CD4+ T cells, such as the regulation of the T follicular helper subset and naive cell homeostasis, have been well documented (29, 30). Using additional in vivo models to test these T cell functions in CK2α−/− mice may reveal additional critical roles for CK2 in CD4+ T cell biology.

We thank Dr. Heike Rebholz for generously providing the Csnk2a1fl/fl mice and Drs. Chander Raman and Laurie Harrington at the University of Alabama at Birmingham for helpful discussions. We also thank Drs. Hui Hu and Yinhu Wang for aid with the shRNA knockdown experiments.

This work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grants T32AI007051 (to S.A.G.), R01NS057563 (to E.N.B.), and R01CA194414 (to E.N.B.) and National Multiple Sclerosis Society Grant RG-1606-24794 (to H.Q.). The Comprehensive Flow Cytometry Core at University of Alabama at Birmingham is supported by National Institutes of Health Grants P30 AR048311 and P30 AI27667.

Abbreviations used in this article:

dLckCre

distal Lck-Cre

EAE

experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis

FoxO1

forkhead box protein O1

qRT-PCR

quantitative RT-PCR

shRNA

short hairpin RNA

Treg

regulatory T cell.

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The authors have no financial conflicts of interest.