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J. Exp. Med. 2013 Vol. 210 No. 6 1153-1165
Regulatory T (T reg) cells , in particular those
expressing the forkhead box transcription fac-
tor Foxp3, are primary controllers of immune
responsiveness and peripheral immunological
tolerance (Rudensky, 2011). These critical im-
munoregulatory cells have been implicated in
the control of an assortment of immunological
processes, ranging from autoimmunity to infec-
tion. In humans, loss-of-function mutations of
Foxp3 lead to a severe multi-organ autoimmune
and inflammatory disorder called IPEX (immune
dysfunction, polyendocrinopathy, enteropathy,
X-linked inheritance). Scurfy mice, carrying a
frameshift mutation in Foxp3, show a similar
fatal systemic disease. Moreover, conditional
ablation of the T reg cell lineage demonstrated
a lifelong requirement for Foxp3-expressing
cells to contain highly aggressive, multi-organ
autoimmunity, even after normal development
of the immune system.
T reg cells also regulate several organ-specific
autoimmune diseases, notably type-1 diabetes
(T1D), characterized by autoimmune attack spe-
cifically on cells in the pancreatic islets of
Langerhans (Bluestone et al., 2008). Supplemen-
tation with T reg cells or enhancement of their
function protected from T1D, whereas genetic
deficiencies in or experimental reductions of
T reg cells exacerbated disease in the nonobese
diabetic (NOD) mouse model or its T cell re-
ceptor (TCR) transgenic derivatives.
Exactly how T reg cells exert their impact
on immune responsiveness has been the subject
of extensive exploration. To date, numerous
protective mechanisms have been ascribed to
them, reflecting their expression of several reg-
ulatory molecules, either displayed at the cell sur-
face or secreted (Vignali et al., 2008; Josefowicz
et al., 2012). It has become clear that the con-
text in which T reg cells perform their regulatory
function can shape the mechanisms of immune
suppression they use, i.e., the tissular location or
inflammatory “flavor” of the response they are
participating in (Sojka et al., 2008; Josefowicz
et al., 2012).
The behavior of T reg cells in the insulitic
lesion of BDC2.5/NOD TCR transgenic mice
Diane Mathis Email:
Abbreviations used: DTR,
diphtheria toxin receptor;
NOD, nonobese diabetic;
MCMV, murine cytomegalovi-
rus; MFI, mean fluorescence
intensity; STAT, signal trans-
ducer and activator of transcrip-
tion; T1D, type 1 diabetes; T reg
cell, regulatory T cell.
Regulatory T cells control NK cells in an
insulitic lesion by depriving them of IL-2
Jonathan Sitrin,1 Aaron Ring,2 K. Christopher Garcia,2
Christophe Benoist,1 and Diane Mathis1
1Division of Immunology, Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115
2Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology, and Department of Structural Biology, Stanford University School
of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305
Regulatory T (T reg) cells control progression to autoimmune diabetes in the BDC2.5/NOD
mouse model by reining in natural killer (NK) cells that infiltrate the pancreatic islets,
inhibiting both their proliferation and production of diabetogenic interferon-. In this
study, we have explored the molecular mechanisms underlying this NK–T reg cell axis,
following leads from a kinetic exploration of gene expression changes early after punctual
perturbation of T reg cells in BDC2.5/NOD mice. Results from gene signature analyses,
quantification of STAT5 phosphorylation levels, cytokine neutralization experiments, cyto-
kine supplementation studies, and evaluations of intracellular cytokine levels collectively
argue for a scenario in which T reg cells regulate NK cell functions by controlling the
bioavailability of limiting amounts of IL-2 in the islets, generated mainly by infiltrating
CD4+ T cells. This scenario represents a previously unappreciated intertwining of the innate
and adaptive immune systems: CD4+ T cells priming NK cells to provoke a destructive T effector
cell response. Our findings highlight the need to consider potential effects on NK cells
when designing therapeutic strategies based on manipulation of IL-2 levels or targets.
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The Journal of Experimental Medicine
T reg cells control pancreatic NK cells by limiting IL-2 | Sitrin et al.
This feature permitted us to perform an accurate, detailed in-
ventory of molecular changes over time, and to test mecha-
nistic hypotheses with short courses of inhibitory or enhancing
treatments. Our findings need to be considered in future
strategies to prevent or dampen T1D.
Acute T reg cell perturbation in BDC2.5/NOD mice rapidly
induced signs of activation in pancreas-infiltrating NK cells
To identify molecular pathways underlying the response of
pancreatic NK cells to a loss of T reg control, we performed
microarray-based gene-expression profiling, as a comprehensive
and unbiased approach. NK cells from pancreata of insulitic
BDC2.5/NOD.Foxp3DTR mice and control DTR-negative
littermates were analyzed 24 h after DT treatment (Fig. 1 A).
Even at this relatively early time point, there were clear tran-
scriptional changes in the T reg cell–depleted mice: induction
of 89 genes >2-fold (highlighted in red) and repression of
123 genes >2-fold (in blue) compared with 1 and 0 loci, re-
spectively, in an analogous comparison of randomized datasets.
The transcripts up-regulated in the absence of T reg cells in-
cluded indicators of the three canonical activities of NK cells:
proliferation (zbtb32, 5.9-fold [J.C. Sun, personal communi-
cation]), cytokine production (ifng, 2.5-fold), and cytotoxic-
ity (gzmb, 2.6-fold). Such changes fit well with our previous
demonstration that ablation of T reg cells in this model induced
cytotoxic activity from, proliferation of, and IFN- produc-
tion by islet-infiltrating NK cells (Feuerer et al., 2009).
The full list of genes whose expression was at least dou-
bled or halved in response to T reg cell removal is presented
in Table S1. A quick glance at the induced loci revealed many
of them to be characteristic of activated NK cells. More pre-
cisely, we compared the response of pancreatic NK cells to
T reg depletion with that of splenic NK cells challenged by
general (cytokine) or more specific [murine cytomegalovirus
(MCMV)] stimuli. The diagonal nature of the red cloud in the
fold-change/fold-change (FC/FC) plot of Fig. 1 B denotes
substantial overlap between the genes induced in pancreatic
NK cells by removal of T reg cells and in splenic NK cells stim-
ulated in culture with IL-12 + IL-18. The tilt toward the hori-
zontal axis signifies that the cytokine stimulus was more potent
under these particular experimental conditions. An analogous
result was found for the blue-colored repressed transcripts, with
an even more pronounced skewing. Overall, 79% of the tran-
scripts that increased or decreased by >2-fold after T reg cell
removal were similarly augmented or diminished, respectively,
subsequent to cytokine stimulation in culture. Similar, although
less striking, observations came from the comparison of pancre-
atic NK cells responding to a loss of T reg cells and splenic NK
cells mobilized by MCMV infection (Fig. 1 C). In this case,
51% of the transcripts induced or repressed >2-fold by T reg
cell ablation were enhanced or dampened, respectively. Nota-
bly, ifng, zbtb32, and gzmb were induced in both the cytokine-
stimulated and MCMV-induced responses.
We also addressed how rapid and localized the transcrip-
tome alterations were after punctual T reg cell ablation. Fig. 1 D
(Katz et al., 1993) serves as an instructive example. This line
carries the rearranged TCR genes of a diabetogenic T cell
clone isolated from a NOD mouse and has been instrumental
in the identification of a spectrum of immunoregulatory genes,
molecules, and cells that control the frequency and aggressivity
of diabetogenic T cells (André et al., 1996). When the BDC2.5
TCR transgenes are propagated on the NOD genetic back-
ground, T cells stereotypically invade the islets at 15–18 d of
age and seed a massive infiltration therein; however, progression
to diabetes occurs rarely (10–20%) and only months later, re-
flecting strong immunoregulation (Gonzalez et al., 1997). When
a transgene expressing the diphtheria toxin receptor (DTR)
under the dictates of the Foxp3 promoter/enhancer elements
was crossed into this system (BDC2.5/NOD.Foxp3DTR mice),
conditional T reg lineage ablation provoked nearly 100% pene-
trance of diabetes within days (Feuerer et al., 2009), highlight-
ing the requirement for T reg cells to guard against T1D.
Analysis of the insulitic lesion revealed, surprisingly, that the
earliest detectable responders to the loss of T reg cells were NK
cells, which accumulated to a higher fraction of the infiltrating
cells and began to produce IFN- within hours. Subsequently,
there was increased activation of diabetogenic CD4+ T cells,
including their production of IFN-. Neutralizing IFN- or
depleting NK cells dampened pancreatic CD4+ T cell activa-
tion and substantially delayed the onset of diabetes. Thus, there
seemed to be a direct and continual requirement for T reg cells
to keep NK cells, and ultimately diabetes, in check.
Much of the T reg cell–centered research over the last
decade has focused on their control of populations typically
considered to be participants in adaptive immune responses,
especially other T cells and antigen-presenting cells. Less em-
phasis has been placed on their impact on cells involved in
innate immune responses, notably NK cells. This neglect is a
bit surprising given that NK cells were long ago found to be
hyperproliferative and functionally enhanced in scurfy mice
(Ghiringhelli et al., 2005). Furthermore, the original report de-
scribing T reg ablation also documented a large increase in NK
cell numbers (Kim et al., 2007). An exception is the growing
body of work on mouse cancer models and human cancer pa-
tients that demonstrates a negative correlation between NK
and T reg cells, as concerns both presence and function
(Shimizu et al., 1999; Ghiringhelli et al., 2005, 2006, 2007;
Smyth et al., 2006). The mechanism most commonly high-
lighted in these studies was T reg mobilization of TGF-, often
in surface-bound form, to directly inhibit NK cell function.
In support of this scenario, blockade of TGF- signaling in
NK cells in a mutant TGF- receptor transgenic model caused
a dramatic increase in cell numbers and enhanced secretion of
IFN- (Laouar et al., 2005).
Given that this axis is still relatively unexplored, partic-
ularly in the context of autoimmune disease, we sought to
identify the molecular underpinnings of T reg cell/NK cell
cross-talk in control of diabetes in the BDC2.5/NOD model.
Our explorations were greatly facilitated by the rapidity and
synchrony of the diabetogenic changes unleashed by punctual
ablation of T reg cells in BDC2.5/NOD.Foxp3DTR mice.
JEM Vol. 210, No. 6
at 15 h. At 24 h, slight tilts of both the induced and repressed
transcript values away from the horizontal axis, toward the di-
agonal, suggest that the same set of genes was modulated in
the spleen, but with delayed kinetics.
T reg control of pancreas-infiltrating NK cells
did not operate acutely through TGF-
Considering that TGF- has repeatedly been implicated in the
control of NK cell functions in other contexts (Uhl et al., 2004;
Friese et al., 2004; Lee et al., 2004; Ghiringhelli et al., 2005,
shows FC/FC plots comparing transcriptional changes in the
pancreas and spleen with or without T reg cell perturbation
at 8-, 15-, and 24-h time points. The bull’s eye nature of the
black cloud of expression values at 8 h indicates that the bulk
of transcripts were only minimally changed in the two organs.
Yet, values for transcripts destined to be up-regulated (red) or
down-regulated (blue) in pancreas-infiltrating NK cells had
already diverged in the pancreas, which is impressive given
that there was no evident loss of T reg cells at this early time
point (unpublished data). This divergence was further amplified
Figure 1. Gene expression changes in pancreatic NK cells soon after T reg cell perturbation. NK cells were sorted from the pancreatic infiltrate
24 h after DT injection into BDC2.5/NOD mice with or without DTR expressed in T reg cells, and were profiled by microarray. (A) Transcript changes.
Differential gene-expression (FC) values for DTR+ (n = 3) and DTR mice (n = 6) (y axis) versus their two-class mean (x axis). Induced (>2-fold) genes are
highlighted in red and repressed (>2-fold) genes are highlighted in blue. (B and C) Activation features. FC/FC plots of the same NK cell data as in A versus
NK cells responding to different activation stimuli. Y axis, FC values for DTR+ versus DTR mice; x axis, FC values for splenic NK cells cultured with (n = 3)
or without (n = 2) IL-12 + IL-18 (see Materials and methods for details; B) or splenic NK cells from C57/BL6 mice 24 h after being infected with
MCMV or not (n = 3; C). (D) Time course of transcript changes. Carried out as in A, except additional time points at 8 and 15 h were examined. FC/FC
plots comparing gene expression differentials for pancreatic NK cells from DTR+ and DTR BDC2.5/NOD mice (y axis) versus splenic NK cells from the
same animals (x axis). Multiple replicates of cellular populations were collected (usually n = 3–6) and averaged. Highlighting in A–D represents the
same set of genes.
T reg cells control pancreatic NK cells by limiting IL-2 | Sitrin et al.
system. Indeed, splenic NK cells stimulated in culture with
IL-12+IL-18 produced less IFN- in the presence of TGF-
(Fig. 2 A; mean fluorescence intensity [MFI] reduced 77 ±
11%). Moreover, microarray analysis revealed a clear negative
correlation between transcript changes provoked by addition
of TGF- to cultures of activated splenic NK cells and by in-
terference with in vivo T reg control of pancreatic NK cells;
i.e., the majority of genes up-regulated in the absence of T reg
2006; Laouar et al., 2005; Smyth et al., 2006), we wondered
whether this cytokine is involved in the ability of T reg cells
in the pancreas of BDC2.5/NOD mice to keep the insulitic
lesion in check. The slight underrepresentation of TGF-–
dependent genes in the pancreatic CD4+ T cell transcriptome
after T reg ablation fit this hypothesis (Feuerer et al., 2009).
First, we confirmed that TGF- could regulate IFN- pro-
duction by NOD-genotype NK cells in an in vitro culture
Figure 2. The role of TGF- signaling. (A, left) Representative flow cytometry profiles of IFN- expression in NOD-derived splenic NK cells cultured with
(red) or without (gray) IL-12 + IL-18 in the absence of TGF-, or with both cytokines and TGF- (blue). (right) Summary data from three independent experiments.
Mean ± SD. The p-value was calculated using the two-tailed unpaired Students’ t test. (B) Reciprocal transcript changes promoted by the loss of TGF- and T reg
cells. FC/FC plot comparing cytokine-activated, cultured, splenic NK cells ± TGF- (x axis, n = 3) versus pancreatic NK cells from BDC2.5/NOD mice ± T reg ablation
(y axis, same data as in Fig. 1 A). Dashed red line, linear regression. (C) FC/FC plot comparing transcriptional profiles of cytokine-activated, cultured,
splenic NK cells ± TGF- (y axis, as in Fig. 2 B) versus NK cells ± cytokine-activation (x axis, as in Fig. 1 B). Activation-independent TGF-–induced genes were
highlighted in pink and were superimposed (D in pink) on a volcano plot (p-value vs. fold change) of NK cell transcripts from BDC2.5/NOD mice depleted or not
of T reg cells (same data as in Fig. 1). The number of signature genes up-regulated (right) or down-regulated (left) 24 h after T reg cell perturbation are indicated.
P-value from the 2 test. (E and F) Summary flow cytometry data for BDC2.5/NOD mice treated for 24 h with anti–TGF- versus either an isotype-control mAb or
PBS (combined). Percentage of NK cells of lymphocytes (E) and percentage of IFN-+ NK cells (F) for two or three independent experiments. Mean ± SD.
Dotted line (mean) and gray shading (SD) represents values achieved after T reg cell ablation (a composite of multiple independent experiments).
JEM Vol. 210, No. 6
cells were down-regulated by TGF-, and vice versa (Fig. 2 B).
Lastly, we generated a signature for TGF-’s impact on NK
cells independent of general activation by comparing transcrip-
tional profiles of NK cells that were cytokine-activated or not
and stimulated with TGF- or not (Fig. 2 C; genes listed in
Table S2), and followed its distribution in pancreas-infiltrating
NK cells unleashed in the absence of T reg cells (Fig. 2 D).
The TGF-–induced genes were repressed upon removal of
T reg cells (i.e., they fall to the left of unity in the FC versus
p-value volcano plot of Fig. 2 D). These data were all consis-
tent with the notion that T reg cells might operate through
TGF- signaling to control NK cells in the insulitic lesion.
To directly test this hypothesis, we attempted to mimic
punctual T reg cell ablation by injecting a mAb recognizing
TGF- into BDC2.5/NOD mice. This intervention was unable
to recapitulate the effects of T reg depletion as neither the frac-
tion/number of pancreatic NK cells (Fig. 2 E) nor their pro-
duction of IFN- (Fig. 2 F) was induced anywhere near the
levels observed with T reg ablation (shaded gray). The mAb
was bioactive, however, as it substantially reduced the fraction
of CD103+ T reg cells, in particular in the mesenteric lymph
nodes (not shown), a population known to be TGF- depen-
dent (Feuerer et al., 2010; Reynolds and Maizels, 2012). Thus,
TGF- may not play an important role in T reg control of
NK cell activation in this context, at least not acutely. It is also
possible that the insulitic lesion provides an environment that
is unusually resistant to neutralization of TGF-.
Punctual ablation of T reg cells elicited an IL-2 response
signature in pancreas-infiltrating NK cells
For several reasons, we wondered whether IL-2 might be a
driver of the pancreatic NK cell transcriptome changes pro-
voked by loss of T reg cells in BDC2.5/NOD mice: first, a
rapid loss of cells, like T reg cells, that express the high-affinity
IL-2R component IL-2R (CD25) stands to substantially
increase IL-2 bioavailability; second, sequestration of IL-2 by
T reg cells is known to be one of their mechanisms of con-
trolling T cells (Barthlott et al., 2005; Scheffold et al., 2005;
Pandiyan et al., 2007); third, IL-2 can prime NK cells, both
in vitro and in vivo, for proliferation and IFN- production
(Fehniger et al., 2003; Granucci et al., 2004; Lee et al., 2012);
and, finally, previous studies on the NOD mouse model of T1D
suggested a limited IL-2 availability in the islet infiltrate (Tang
et al., 2008b). To address this possibility, we overlaid an IL-2–
responsive gene signature derived from a human CD4+ T cell
lymphoma (Marzec et al., 2008) onto a volcano plot depict-
ing the transcriptional response of pancreatic NK cells to punc-
tual T reg ablation (Fig. 3 A). As early as 8 h and continuing
through 24 h after DT treatment, there was a significant skew-
ing of IL-2–induced genes within the set of loci up-regulated
in pancreatic NK cells and an analogous enrichment of signa-
ture IL-2–repressed genes among the down-regulated loci,
Figure 3. An IL-2 footprint is induced by T reg ablation. (A) IL-2–
induced (orange) and –repressed (blue) gene transcripts (Marzec et al., 2008)
are superimposed on volcano plots (p-value versus FC) of pancreatic NK cell
transcripts up-regulated (to the right) or down-regulated (to the left) by per-
turbation of T reg cells (data from Fig. 1) at 8 h (top) and 24 h (bottom).
P-values calculated using the 2 test. (B) Representative flow cytometry plots
for NK cells isolated from the pancreas of BDC2.5/NOD mice 24 h after T reg
ablation or not. (C) Summary data for three to four independent experi-
ments with mean ± SD. (D, left) Representative flow cytometry plots for pan-
creas-infiltrating NK cells after T reg cell ablation; (right) summary for the
percentage of CD25-expressing versus CD25-negative NK cells simultane-
ously expressing IFN- from at least three independent experiments.
T reg cells control pancreatic NK cells by limiting IL-2 | Sitrin et al.
extremely rapid induction of T1D (Feuerer et al., 2009). Thus,
IL-2 appears to be a crucial element in the unleashing of
pancreatic NK cells when relieved of T reg cell control.
A potential caveat to the use of a mAb that forms IL-2 com-
plexes preferentially capable of engaging CD25 is that NK
cells often increase CD25 expression in response to activating
stimuli. Therefore, we examined to what extent T reg cell ab-
lation induced expression of this receptor and if mAb block-
ade altered that effect. Levels of CD25 did not increase on
NK cells in the absence of T reg cells; however, T reg ablation
combined with mAb treatment did enhance expression of
CD25 (Fig. 4 D).
IL-2 supplementation overcame T reg cell control
of pancreas-infiltrating NK cells, inducing their activation
We explored to what extent the addition of IL-2 to BDC2.5/
NOD mice could surmount T reg cell control of NK cell ac-
tivities within the insulitic lesion. Given the relatively short
in vivo half-life of IL-2 (Donohue and Rosenberg, 1983), we
chose to administer IL-2–anti–IL-2 mAb complexes, which
stabilize the cytokine and target it preferentially to one or the
other of the IL-2 receptors. In this case, S4B6 was the most ap-
propriate mAb, as IL-2–S4B6 complexes bind well to IL-2R–
expressing cells, notably NK cells, and poorly to cells displaying
IL-2R, such as T reg cells (Létourneau et al., 2010). Although
treatment of BDC2.5/NOD mice with IL-2–S4B6 complexes
did not result in the anticipated expansion of the pancreatic
NK cell population (Fig. 5 A), it did elicit IFN- synthesis
(Fig. 5 B; also true for splenic NK cells; not depicted). The induc-
tion of IFN-, measured as an increase in IFN-+ cells, was
similar to what was seen after ablation of T reg cells (Fig. 2 E
and Fig. 4 C). However, we realized that this experiment had
an unexpected complication that might explain the lack of
NK cell proliferation: although previous studies claimed no
effect on T reg cells after treatment of mice with IL-2–S4B6
complexes, we observed an approximate doubling of T reg
cells in terms of both fraction of T cells and total cell numbers
To circumvent this issue, we treated BDC2.5/NOD mice
with a mutant form of IL-2 (Super 2), which structurally re-
lieves the dependence of IL-2 on engaging the IL-2R chain,
thereby shifting the competitive advantage for binding of
IL-2 from T reg cells to IL-2R chain–expressing NK cells
(Levin et al., 2012). This intervention also induced IFN-
synthesis by pancreatic NK cells in the absence of population
expansion (Fig. 5, A and B), with a less pronounced influence
on T reg cells than found in IL-2–S4B6 complex treatment
Although disjunctions between readouts of NK cell prolif-
eration and production of IFN- have been described (Cooper
et al., 2009), we were surprised to find a divergence in this
context because past studies have documented both activities
after treatment of mice with IL-2–S4B6 complexes (Jin et al.,
2008). However, we noticed that this study and others (Boyman
et al., 2006; Mostböck et al., 2008; Létourneau et al., 2010),
focused on expansion of NK cells quantified at later time
suggesting an increased signaling by the cytokine. Such en-
richment was also seen with two other IL-2 responsive gene
signatures: one derived from murine CD8+ T cells (Verdeil
et al., 2006) and the other from human NK cells (Dybkaer
et al., 2007; not depicted).
In addition, flow cytometric analysis revealed a substantial
increase in the phosphorylation of STAT5, an event down-
stream of IL-2R engagement and required for signal transduc-
tion, in pancreatic NK cells from T reg cell–depleted versus
control mice. STAT1, not a member of the signaling cascade
downstream of IL-2R, showed minimal additional phosphor-
ylation, which was not statistically significant (Fig. 3, B and C).
When we gated on IFN-+ NK cells, the MFI of pSTAT5
was 2.2-fold (±0.7) higher. Furthermore, a higher fraction of
CD25-expressing, as opposed to CD25-nonexpressing, NK
cells in the pancreatic infiltrate made IFN- (Fig. 3 D), sug-
gesting that the former might have a competitive advantage.
However, the fact that a clear CD25 IFN-+ population
was detectable indicated that expression of CD25 was not
required for IFN- production. Collectively, these data indicate
that, upon removal of T reg cells, pancreatic NK cells experi-
enced heightened signaling through the IL-2R, which could
potentially be responsible for their activation.
IL-2 was required for the activation of pancreas-infiltrating
NK cells provoked by loss of T reg cells
To evaluate the importance of IL-2 in the pancreatic NK cell
response to acute T reg depletion in BDC2.5/NOD mice, we
tested the effect of neutralizing this cytokine with a mAb. Com-
plicating such an experiment was the fact that the mAb could
potentially stabilize IL-2 and direct its binding to the high- and/or
low-affinity receptor (Boyman et al., 2006). Therefore, we
used the mAb JES6-1, as the complexes it forms with IL-2 bind
highly preferentially to the chain of the high-affinity IL-2R
(expressed mostly on T reg cells) rather than to the low-affinity
IL-2R chain (expressed on NK cells; Boyman et al., 2006).
In the context of T reg cell ablation, then, any such in vivo–
generated IL-2–JES6-1 complexes should be fairly innocuous.
Treatment of BDC2.5/NOD mice with JES6-1 in con-
junction with T reg cell ablation blocked NK cell accumula-
tion, whereas analogous administration of an isotype-control
mAb had no detectable effect (Fig. 4 A). Importantly, no sig-
nificant drop in NK cell number or fraction occurred when
JES6-1 was administered to DTR-negative littermate con-
trols, indicating that simple IL-2 starvation did not provoke a
wave of NK cell death. T reg cells remained at low levels after
DT plus anti–IL-2 injection, demonstrating that IL-2–JES6-1
complexes did not trigger “bounce-back” of the T reg cell
population in the pancreas (Fig. 4 B).
IL-2 neutralization also blocked the NK cell production
of IFN- elicited by punctual T reg depletion, as measured by
the percentage of IFN-–expressing NK cells (Fig. 4 C) and
a reduction in the MFI of IFN- in NK cells (55 ± 19%).
This is a critical point because we have previously docu-
mented that experimental blockade of IFN- signaling in
this model sufficed in and of itself to halt the characteristic
JEM Vol. 210, No. 6
was also evident, but was delayed in comaparison with the
T reg ablation model, perhaps reflecting a requirement to
surpass a higher signaling threshold or the need for an addi-
To determine whether clinical diabetes could be rescued
by supplementing BDC2.5/NOD mice with IL-2, we injected
them for 3 d with IL-2–S4B6 complexes. Most complex-
injected mice rapidly succumbed to diabetes, starting 6 d after
the beginning of treatment. In contrast, none of the control
mice developed diabetes during this time frame (Fig. 5 C).
points. Indeed, when we administered IL-2–S4B6 complexes
to BDC2.5/NOD mice and assayed at day 4 (rather than the
usual 24 h), there was a clear induction of both proliferation
of and IFN- synthesis by pancreatic NK cells (Fig. 5 A and B).
Thus, supplementation with IL-2 was able to overcome the
restraint on NK cells imposed by T reg cells in the insulitic
lesion of BDC2.5/NOD mice. Most important was the aug-
mentation of IFN- synthesis 24 h after IL-2 administration,
as this cytokine is an important and required element in the
rapid induction of T1D after T reg ablation. NK cell proliferation
Figure 4. Neutralization of IL-2 prevents the activation of pancreatic NK cells in response to T reg cell ablation. (A–D) The pancreatic infiltrate
from BDC2.5/NOD mice (DTR+ or DTR control littermates) was analyzed 24 h after DT injection ± anti–IL-2 mAb JES6-1 (or isotype control) co-injection.
(left) Representative flow cytometry plots. (right) Summary data for fraction and numbers with mean ± SD from three to four independent experiments.
(A) NK cells (NKp46+CD3CD19) and (B) Foxp3+ T reg cells (Foxp3+CD4+CD3+CD19) in the pancreatic infiltrate (FSC/SSC lymphocyte gated). (C) IFN-–
producing NK cells among total NK cells in the pancreatic infiltrate. (D) CD25 expression on pancreatic NK cells.
T reg cells control pancreatic NK cells by limiting IL-2 | Sitrin et al.
No difference was found in the fraction or number of IL-2–
expressing cells, or in the MFI of IL-2–expressing cells (Fig. 6 B).
Although it remains possible that at later time points an expan-
sion of CD4+ T cells entails higher IL-2 levels, this scenario
is unlikely within the first few hours, as the fraction and total
number of IL-2–producing CD4+ T cells remained constant
(Fig. 6 C). Thus, T reg cells seem to acutely regulate NK cells
by sequestering local IL-2 rather than dampening its synthesis.
Foxp3+CD4+ T reg cells are known to regulate the progres-
sion of T1D in several mouse models, and are thought to exert
an analogous influence in human T1D patients (Bluestone
et al., 2008). Nonetheless, our understanding of the role of
T reg cells during the human disease remains very limiting
owing to a dearth of preclinical samples, when T reg cells likely
exert the most important influences. Mouse models such as
the BDC2.5/NOD line, which have facilitated the study of
CD4+ T cells were by far the major producers of IL-2 in the
pancreatic lesion in the presence or absence of T reg cells
These findings raised a pair of important questions: what cells
produced IL-2 in the pancreatic infiltrate of BDC2.5/NOD
mice? And how did IL-2 levels change with T reg ablation?
To address the first issue, we performed intracellular staining
of IL-2 in pancreatic cells from unmanipulated BDC2.5/NOD
mice. CD45+ cells showed a clear IL-2 signal, easily distinguish-
able from the isotype control background staining. The vast
majority of IL-2-expressing cells (>95%) were CD4+ T cells
(Fig. 6 A). The remaining signal (3%) came from CD3+CD4
cells, which further analysis revealed to be CD8+ (unpublished
data), and double-negative cells (<1%). Next, we compared lev-
els of IL-2–expressing cells in the BDC2.5/NOD pancreatic
infiltrate, with or without T reg cell ablation, at 8 h after DT
treatment (when the increased transcriptional activity of IL-2
response genes is clearly detectable; Fig. 1 D). This analysis in-
cluded the entire CD45+ population to ensure a broad coverage.
Figure 5. Supplementation with IL-2 induces early IFN- production and eventual accumulation of NK cells in the pancreatic lesion, as
well as clinical diabetes. Pancreatic infiltrate from BDC2.5/NOD mice was analyzed 24 h after treatment with control PBS, IL-2–S4B6 complexes, or
mutant IL-2 analogue Super-2, or 4 d after injection of IL-2–S4B6 complexes. (A, left) Representative flow cytometry data. (middle) Summary data for
fraction of NK cells in the FSC/SSC lymphocyte gate. (right) Cell number summary data. (B) Analogous data for IFN-–producing NK cells. Mean ± SD, at
least three independent experiments for both panels. (C) Summary diabetes data for 2 cohorts after 3 consecutive treatments with IL-2–S4B6 complexes
(n = 14 IL-2–S4B6 complex; n = 9 PBS).
JEM Vol. 210, No. 6
chains; (c) expressing mostly the low-affinity IL-2R com-
plex, NK cells are deprived of IL-2, dampening their acti-
vation; (d) punctual ablation of T reg cells liberates IL-2 at a
sufficient concentration to permit NK cell (and eventual T cell)
activation, unleashing their proliferation and production of
IFN-; and (e) IFN-, likely in concert with the liberated
IL-2, drives the activity of T eff cells, provoking conversion
of an innocuous to a pathogenic insulitic lesion and the devel-
opment of T1D. This sequence of events is consistent with the
belief that IL-2 can prime NK cells, both in vitro and in vivo,
for proliferation and IFN- production (Fehniger et al., 2003;
Granucci et al., 2004; Lee et al., 2012). This represents an in-
teresting intertwining of innate and adaptive immunity, wherein
the adaptive (CD4+ T cells) primes the innate (NK cells) to
promote the adaptive (CD4+ and, eventually, CD8+ T eff cells)
The primary means reported for T reg control of NK cells
thus far is production and cell-surface display of inhibitory
TGF- (Ghiringhelli et al., 2005), a mechanism that seems
less critical in the present context. However, a scenario con-
ceptually similar to ours has been proposed for the impact of
T reg cells on T cell responses in several experimental models;
i.e., T reg and T eff cell competition for limiting IL-2 (Barthlott
et al., 2005; Scheffold et al., 2005; Pandiyan et al., 2007). Other
studies (see Gasteiger et al. and Gasteiger et al. in this issue) that
were carried out on the basis of punctual T reg cell ablation
experiments have recently found that T reg control of IL-2
availability is an important systemic control on NK cell homeo-
stasis and activation (A. Rudensky, personal communication).
prediabetic pathogenic processes, particularly those that play
out within the insulitic lesion, are an important resource. We
recently reported that T reg cells control the conversion of in-
sulitis to diabetes in this model primarily by reining in the ac-
tivities of islet-infiltrating NK cells, notably their production
of IFN- (Feuerer et al., 2009). Neutralization of this cyto-
kine during ablation of T reg cells inhibited the mobilization
of T effector (T eff) cells within the islets and drastically re-
duced the incidence of hyper-acute T1D that typically devel-
ops in this model in the absence of T reg cells. Here, we have
explored the molecular underpinnings of the NK cellT reg
cell axis, exploiting the robust, rapid, and synchronous pheno-
typic changes characteristic of the model. Our studies un-
covered a previously undocumented scenario whereby T reg
cells control NK cell activation in the islet infiltrate by limit-
ing their exposure to IL-2. This mechanism was indicated by
the induction of an IL-2–dependent gene signature in NK
cells upon T reg cell ablation, a parallel increase in NK cell
pSTAT5 levels, reduction in NK cell accumulation and IFN-
production after treatment of T reg cell–depleted BDC2.5/
NOD mice with anti–IL-2 mAb, and a corresponding en-
hancement of these parameters in BDC2.5/NOD mice sup-
plemented with IL-2.
More precisely, the scenario we propose is that in the
insulitic lesion of prediabetic BDC2.5/NOD mice: (a) CD4+
T eff cells (primarily) produce limiting amounts of IL-2; (b)
T reg cells in the vicinity efficiently consume most of this cy-
tokine, reflecting their elevated expression of the high-affinity
IL-2R, composed of the (CD132), (CD122), and (CD25)
Figure 6. IL-2 production in the pancreas before and after T reg ablation. (A) Representative flow cytometry plots for pancreatic infiltrate from
BDC2.5/NOD mice stained and analyzed for IL-2 by intracellular flow cytometry. An extended FSC/SSC gate was taken to include both lymphocytes and
leukocytes along with a live/dead stain to exclude dead cells. CD45+IL-2+ cells were analyzed for CD3 and CD4 expression. (B) Summary data for pancre-
atic infiltrate from mice depleted of T reg cells (8 h with DT, DTR+) or not (8 h with DT, DTR). Mean ± SD, at least three independent experiments. (C) Sum-
mary data, as in B, gated on CD4+ T cells.
T reg cells control pancreatic NK cells by limiting IL-2 | Sitrin et al.
Given a strong rationale from studies on both mice and
humans, there has been substantial interest in developing pro-
tocols for treating T1D patients with IL-2, likely in combina-
tion with other agents (Hulme et al., 2012; Shevach, 2012).
The results from a phase I clinical trial wherein IL-2 and
rapamycin were administered to 9 T1D patients within 4 yr of
diagnosis were recently published, and proved disappointing
(Long et al., 2012). There was, as hoped for, a transient aug-
mentation in T reg cell fraction and numbers, accompanied
by a more persistent enhancement of their STAT5 phosphory-
lation levels. However, these changes were accompanied by an
unanticipated transient impairment in islet -cell function, in
concert with increases in the NK and eosinophil populations,
ultimately resulting in trial closure. As cogently argued by
Bonifacio (2012), the detrimental impact on cells could re-
flect rapamycin effects and/or influences of the expanded
populations of innate immune system cells. Certainly, rapamy-
cin has been reported to inhibit -cell regeneration and nor-
malization of blood-glucose levels in mice (Nir et al., 2007).
However, our findings, especially the rapid induction of dia-
betes after IL-2 supplementation, highlight the potentially
destructive effects of IL-2–mediated unleashing of NK cells.
Activation of islet-infiltrating NK cells could be directly cyto-
toxic or, through production of IFN-, could promote the ac-
tivities of pathogenic T eff cells. This represents another example
of the predictive value of murine models of T1D, though only
if the available mouse data are reviewed and translation to
humans is performed in a precise and critical manner (Shoda
et al., 2005).
As recognized early on (Tang et al., 2008b; Grinberg-
Bleyer et al., 2010; Hulme et al., 2012; Shevach, 2012), har-
nessing the tremendous potential of IL-2–IL-2R-based therapies
while avoiding the detrimental side-effects is a great chal-
lenge. Novel approaches, such as the engineering of designer
IL-2 derivatives (Levin et al., 2012), are promising in this re-
gard. Even so, we need to understand much better how the
various regulatory and effector populations in the insulitic
lesions are orchestrated, and perspicaciously apply this knowl-
edge to the development of therapeutic protocols.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Mice. NOD/ShiltJ (NOD), BDC2.5/NOD TCR transgenic (Katz et al., 1993),
and BDC2.5/NOD.Foxp3DTR double-transgenic (Feuerer et al., 2009) mice
were bred in our colony at The Jackson Laboratory, and were genotyped
and maintained at Harvard Medical School (under specific pathogen–free
conditions). Females between 7 and 10 wk of age were generally used. Pro-
tocols were approved by Harvard Medical School’s Institutional Animal Care
and Use Committee.
In vivo treatments. All in vivo treatments were via intraperitoneal injec-
tion. For T reg cell ablation, BDC2.5/NOD.Foxp3DTR mice were admin-
istered 1 µg DT (Sigma-Aldrich) in sterile PBS, and samples were taken at
the indicated time points. Control mice were littermates lacking the DTR
transgene. For blockade of TGF-, anti–TGF- mAb (clone 1D11.11) was
produced in the laboratory, and 1 mg was injected in sterile PBS 24 h before
experimentation or at day 0, 3, and 5 for the long-term experiments. Con-
trol mice received an equal amount of isotype-control mAb (MOPC-21;
Our findings should be viewed in the context of an ex-
tensive body of work weighing the role of IL-2 in human and
mouse T1D (Hulme et al., 2012; Shevach, 2012). For example,
Il2 and IL2RA have shown a genetic association with disease
in NOD mice and human diabetes patients, respectively. The
effects of IL-2–IL-2R signaling on T reg cell homeostasis and
function were routinely cited in interpretation of these associa-
tions. Indeed, mice devoid of IL-2, IL-2R, IL-2R, or STAT5
all succumb to lymphoproliferative disease caused by T reg cell
reduction or dysfunction, which can be reversed by adminis-
tration of exogenous IL-2 or wild-type T reg cells. Nonetheless,
given the data presented herein, it seems plausible that allelic
variation in IL-2–IL-2R signaling could, instead or in addi-
tion, result in aberrant NK cell function and thereby exacerbate
disease in a manner not currently appreciated. Consistent with
this possibility, the mouse Klr and human killer immunoglobulin-
like receptor (KIR) families that modulate NK cell activation have
also been associated with diabetes in numerous human studies
(van der Slik et al., 2003; Nikitina-Zake et al., 2004; Rodacki
et al., 2007; Ramos-Lopez et al., 2009), as well as in the NOD
mouse (Rogner et al., 2001). More information on the effects
of mutant alleles of elements of the IL-2–IL-2R signaling path-
way on NK cells is imperative.
In humans, modulation of the IL-2–IL-2R axis has been
achieved through treatment with daclizumab, a mAb target-
ing IL-2R. In multiple sclerosis, where autoreactive T cells
recognizing antigens from the central nervous system promote
inflammation and demyelination, daclizumab induced a pop-
ulation of CD56bright NK cells that can target and kill CD4+
T cells. Expansion of this NK cell population was associated
with enhanced disease outcomes (Rose, 2012). Although mul-
tiple mechanisms of action for this mAb have been proposed,
increased bioavailability of IL-2 as a result of IL-2R blockade
would mirror the findings and interpretation reported here.
The role of IL-2–IL-2R signaling in diabetes progression
has been experimentally dissected in NOD mice (Hulme et al.,
2012; Shevach, 2012). Alone, or in combination with agents such
as rapamycin, IL-2 supplementation had disease-modulating
effects, in both preventive and curative protocols. Interest-
ingly, one set of studies reported that although low-dose IL-2
treatment suppressed diabetes, high-dose administration ac-
tually triggered disease (Tang et al., 2008b). The diabetes-
suppressive effect of low-dose IL-2 was interpreted as correction
of an imbalance between T reg and T eff cells downstream
of a genetic deficiency in IL-2 signaling. The relatively low
expression of CD25 on islet-infiltrating T reg cells was taken
as evidence of this notion, although it later became apparent
that dampened CD25 expression is a characteristic of T reg
cells at inflammatory sites in general (Lazarski et al., 2008;
Tang et al., 2008a). The diabetogenic effect of high-dose IL-2
was explained as an enhancement of the activities of patho-
genic T eff cells (although there was also a striking systemic
expansion of NK cells). The results presented here emphasize
that the response of islet-infiltrating NK cells to manipula-
tion of IL-2–IL-2R signaling is not to be ignored in inter-
JEM Vol. 210, No. 6
expressed in any condition. Microarray data are available from the National
Center for Biotechnology Information/GEO repository under accession
In vitro cultures. Before cell sorting, splenocytes were depleted of B and
CD8+ T cells using biotin-labeled mAbs to CD8 (2.43; prepared in-laboratory)
and CD19 (6D5; BioLegend), followed by depletion using the CELLection
Biotin Binder kit (Invitrogen) according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
NK cells (CD19CD3NKp46+) were sorted, and then cultured in sterile
complete RPMI (10% FBS, 1X PenStrep [Invitrogen], 2 mM l-glutamine,
55 M 2-mercaptoethanol (Sigma-Aldrich), RPMI [Invitrogen]), and were
activated with rIL-12 (0.5 ng/ml; PeproTech) and rIL-18 (0.5 ng/ml; MBL)
for 15–20 h with or without rTGF- (1 ng/ml; PeproTech). After culture,
cells were either stained for intracellular IFN- or resorted to high purity for
microarray analysis as described above.
Statistical analysis. All nonmicroarray statistical analyses for cytometry
experiments were performed with GraphPad Prism software. For in vivo
mouse readouts, p-values were calculated using the Mann-Whitney test. For
diabetes incidence experiments, p-values were calculated using the Log-rank
test. P-values were considered significant at P < 0.05 (*), P < 0.01 (**), P <
0.001 (***). 2 p-value analysis for microarray expression data (volcano
plots) was calculated using Microsoft Excel based on the number of genes
dropping to the left or right side of the fold-change distribution.
Online supplemental material. Table S1 lists transcripts differentially ex-
pressed in pancreatic NK cells in the presence or absence of T reg cells as de-
scribed in Fig. 1. Table S2 shows the gene list of an activation-independent
TGF--responsive signature used in Fig. 2. Online supplemental material is
available at http://www.jem.org/cgi/content/full/jem.20122248/DC1.
We thank A. Rudensky and J. Sun for discussing observations with us before
publication; K. Hattori and A. Ortiz-Lopez for help with mice and reagents;
J. LaVecchio, A. Wakabayashi, and G. Buruzula for flow cytometry; R. Cruse, H. Paik,
J. Ericson, and S. Davis for help with microarray analyses; and L. Kozinn and
C. Laplace for help with the manuscript.
This work was supported by National Institutes of Health grants RO1AI051530
(to C. Benoist and D. Mathis) and RO1AI51321 (to K.C. Garcia); funding from the
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (K.C. Garcia); and an F30 award from the National
Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (A. Ring).
J. Sitrin, C. Benoist, and D. Mathis declare no competing financial interests.
K.C. Garcia, and A. Ring declare competing financial interests due to submission of a
pending patent application describing the IL-2 superkine (Super-2).
Submitted: 4 October 2012
Accepted: 15 April 2013
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BioLegend) was injected along with DT, and analysis was done at 24 h. Con-
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two consecutive draws of >250 mg/dl was considered diabetic.
Cell sorting and flow cytometry. For the initial NK cell microarray ex-
periments, cells were isolated from the pancreas and spleen by mechanical sepa-
ration with scissors. The pancreas was bathed in a shaking water bath at 37°C
in digestion buffer (1 mg/ml collagenase IV [Sigma-Aldrich], 10 U/ml DNaseI
[Sigma-Aldrich], and 1% [Thermo Fischer Scientific] in DMEM [Invitrogen]).
For all other experiments, postmortem intracardial perfusion was performed
with 30 ml room temperature PBS (or cold PBS for the intracellular phospho-
STAT stains). After surgical removal of organs, cells were isolated from the pan-
creas and spleen by mechanically separating with scissors before passing through
a 40-µm filter into DMEM supplemented with 2% FBS (Omega Scientific).
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ice. Cells were Fc blocked (2G42, prepared in-laboratory) before surface or
intracellular stains were performed using mAbs against CD3 (145-2C11 and
17A2; BioLegend), CD19 (6D5; BioLegend), NKp46 (29A1.4; BioLegend),
CD4 (RM4-5; BioLegend), CD25 (PC61; BioLegend), and CD103 (2E7;
BioLegend). For Foxp3 (FJK-16s; eBioscience) and IFN- (XMG1.2; Bio-
Legend) stains, fixation/permeabilization were performed according to the
manufacturer’s instructions (eBioscience). For phospho-STAT staining, includ-
ing pSTAT5 (C71E5; Cell Signaling Technology), pSTAT1 (58D6; Cell Sig-
naling Technology), and isotype-control (DA1E; Cell Signaling Technology)
mAbs, fixation/permeabilization/stains were done according to the manufac-
turer’s instructions. For intracellular IL-2 staining of the pancreas (JES6-5H4
and isotype-control RTK4530; both obtained from BioLegend), cells were pu-
rified after PBS perfusion and digestion, using a Percoll gradient (GE Health-
care) according to manufacturer’s instructions, and were stimulated with PMA
(50 ng/ml; Sigma-Aldrich) and ionomycin (1 nM; EMD Millipore) for 4 h.
GolgiStop (BD) was added to the culture during the last 3 h. Dead cells were
discriminated using a live/dead fixable near-IR dead cell stain kit (L10119;
Invitrogen), and then stained with fluorescent mAb followed by fixing and
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Microarrays. Cells were double-sorted to high purity (>99%) on a
MoFlo Cell Sorter (Beckman Coulter) directly into TRIzol (Invitrogen).
RNA was prepared as described by the Immunological Genome Project
(www.immgen.org) and underwent the GeneChip Whole Transcript Sense
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GeneChip WT Terminal Labeling and Controls kit (Affymetrix). The re-
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(Affymetrix). Image reads were processed through Affymetrix software to
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the RMA algorithm via Affymetrix Power Tools. Multiple replicates of cel-
lular populations were collected (usually n = 3–6) and averaged. Data were
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were generated using the MultiplotPreprocess module from Genepattern.
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a coefficient of variation (CV) filter and when the represented gene was not
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