Biomedical Laboratory Science

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Molecular Basis of Tolerance and Immunity to Antigens.



The intestinal immune system has to discriminate between harmful and beneficial antigens. Although strong protective immunity is essential to prevent invasion by pathogens, equivalent responses against dietary proteins or commensal bacteria can lead to chronic disease. These responses are normally prevented by a complex interplay of regulatory mechanisms. This article reviews the unique aspects of the local microenvironment of the intestinal immune system and discuss how these promote the development of regulatory responses that ensure the maintenance of homeostasis in the gut.



The intestinal immune system is the largest and most complex part of the immune system. Not only does it encounter more antigen than any other part of the body, but it must also discriminate clearly between invasive organisms and harmless antigens, such as food proteins and commensal bacteria. Most human pathogens enter the body through a mucosal surface, such as the intestine, and strong immune responses are required to protect this physiologically essential tissue. In addition, it is important to prevent further dissemination of such infections. By contrast, active immunity against non-pathogenic materials would be wasteful, and hypersensitivity responses against dietary antigens or commensal bacteria can lead to inflammatory disorders such as Coeliac Disease and Crohn's Disease, respectively. As a result, the usual response to harmless gut antigens is the induction of local and systemic immunological tolerance, known as oral tolerance. In addition to its physiological importance, this phenomenon can be exploited for the immunotherapy of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, but it is also an obstacle to the development of recombinant oral vaccines. For these reasons, there is great interest in the processes that determine the immunological consequences of oral administration of antigen. To some extent, this discrimination between harmful and harmless antigens also occurs in other parts of the immune system, as it partly results from inherent properties of the antigen and associated adjuvants. Nevertheless, it has been proposed that there are also specific features of mucosal tissues that favour the induction of tolerance, the production of immunoglobulin A antibodies and, to a lesser extent, T helper 2 (TH2)-cell responses. Several features of mucosal tissues might contribute to these effects, including a unique ontogeny and anatomical patterning, specialized cells and organs that are involved in the uptake of antigen, distinctive subsets of antigen-presenting cells (APCs) and several unusual populations of B and T cells. In addition, the migration of lymphocytes to the intestine is controlled by a series of unique adhesion molecules and chemokine receptors.

This review article discusses the anatomical factors which determine the special nature of small intestinal immune responses, and the unique processes and cells involved in the uptake and presentation of antigen to T cells in the gut. In particular, it focuses on the local factors that determine the behaviour of APCs and T cells in the gut and discuss recent evidence that challenges the conventional dogma that Peyer’s patches are the only site for the initiation of mucosal immunity and tolerance.

It also focuses on the small intestine, as this tissue has been studied in most detail and it contains the largest proportion of immune cells in the gut. However, the reader should be aware that each compartment of the intestine, from the oropharynx to the stomach and to the rectum, has its own specializations, which might have individual effects on immune regulation in response to local antigens.
  • The intestinal immune system is an anatomically and functionally distinct compartment, in which a careful distinction must be made between harmful antigens, such as invasive pathogens, and harmless antigens, such as dietary proteins or commensal bacteria.
  • The default response to harmless antigens is the induction of tolerance. A breakdown in this physiological process can lead to disease.
  • Immune responses and tolerance in the gut are initiated in organized lymphoid organs, such as the Peyer's patches and mesenteric lymph nodes (MLNs). The mucosa contains effector or regulatory cells that migrate there selectively, from the MLNs, in the lymph and bloodstream under the control of α4β7 integrins and the chemokine receptor CCR9.
  • Pathogens might enter the intestinal immune system through M cells in the follicle-associated epithelium of the Peyer's patches, whereas soluble antigens might gain access predominantly through the normal epithelium that covers the villus mucosa.
  • Peyer's patches, lamina propria and MLNs contain unusual populations of dendritic cells (DCs), some of which are characterized by the production of interleukin-10 (IL-10) and which polarize T cells to an IL-4-, IL-10- and transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β)-producing 'regulatory' phenotype.
  • Genetically determined factors, together with luminal bacteria, might act on epithelial and stromal components of the intestinal mucosa to produce a local microenvironment that is dominated by the constitutive production of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), TGF-β and IL-10. Under physiological conditions, this favours the differentiation of regulatory DCs and T cells, which leads to systemic tolerance and/or immunoglobulin-A production.

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