Monitoring regulatory T cells in clinical samples: consensus on an essential marker set and gating strategy for regulatory T cell analysis by flow cytometry
OBJECTIVE To assess the use of Helios in combination with FoxP3 as a superior method for identifying non-cytokine-producing human Treg cells in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and to determine if FoxP3+Helios+ Treg cells are maintained at normal levels in patients with clinically active disease. METHODS Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were purified from the blood of healthy volunteer donors and from 52 consecutive patients with SLE of varying clinical activity (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Disease Activity Index scores of 0, 2-4, and ≥ 5). PBMCs (either fresh or after 4 hours of stimulation for cytokine production) were then analyzed by flow cytometry for the expression of cell surface markers (CD4, CD25, CD127, and CD45RA) and transcription factors (FoxP3 and Helios), as well as for the production of cytokines (interleukin-2 and interferon-γ). RESULTS FoxP3+Helios+ Treg cells were found to be non-cytokine producing in both SLE patients and healthy controls. Patients with clinically active SLE had higher percentages of FoxP3+Helios+ Treg cells than did patients with inactive SLE or healthy controls. When corrected for the total CD4 cell count, the absolute numbers of FoxP3+Helios+ Treg cells in patients with moderately-to-highly active SLE were normal. CONCLUSION Previous reports of a deficiency in Treg cell number or function in SLE are limited by their use of CD25, either alone or in combination with other markers, to identify human Treg cells. Helios in combination with FoxP3 is a superior method for detecting all non-cytokine-producing Treg cells, irrespective of CD25 or CD45RA expression. Using this method, we showed that FoxP3+Helios+ Treg cell numbers are not reduced in patients with clinically active SLE.