This week journal Nature Immunology published a study that had great title but poor data and conclusions. In fact, I rarely read such weak study for a long time, especially from top subject-matter journal.
Basically, the authors tried to show that infection-induced cell apoptosis leads to self-peptide presentation and self-reactivity or even autoimmunity. Data are however misleading.
For this study the authors used the rodent pathogen Citrobacter rodentium that infects intestinal epithelial cells and induces their apoptosis. As a control, they have used infection with ΔEspF Citrobacter rodentium, a variant that lacks the secreted protein EPEC that mediates apoptosis. Initially, they showed that infection with WT Citrobacter rodentium, but not ΔEspF Citrobacter rodentium, induces Th17 response from large intestinal lamina propria (LI LP).
Next, the authors tried to examine whether infection-induced apoptotic cells will also provide self peptides for T cell activation (alongside of Citrobacter rodentium peptides). To do it, they have used so called double transgenic (DTg) mice derived from crossing OT-II mice with Act-mOVA mice. Now, these DTg mice delete absolute majority of OVA-specific OT-II cells in the thymus (from 1.5x10^6 to ~1,000 cells, i.e >1000X fold reduction of auto-reactive cells). The authors noted that DTg mice did not spontaneously develop autoimmunity and were healthy.
Next, when DTg mice were infected with Citrobacter rodentium, some portion of those OT-II cells left in DTg mice responded to it by up-regulating IL-17. The authors did not quantify the number of responding self-reactive OT-II cells and dot plot analysis reveals that their numbers seemed extremely low (on contour plot analysis). Moreover, it is not even clear whether self-reactive OT-II were responding to self-antigen or simply to inflammatory cytokine milieu [homeostatically] since even un-infected DTg mice showed proliferation and IL-17 expression in LI LP self-reactive OT-II cells.
The authors also showed that when infected with Citrobacter rodentium DTg mice showed little spike in anti-OVA IgA response driven by OT-II cells. However, it is not clear whether this anti-OVA IgA response has any pathogenic role.
Still, the authors believed that Th17 OT-II cells generated in DTg mice upon Citrobacter rodentium infection played pathogenic role in gut inflammation. As a "proof" they provided H&E staining of sections of large intestine from wild-type and DTg mice on day 40 after infection. Now, if scale bar on this H&E staining is 250 μm on both sections, then it is obvious DTg mice intestine is almost 2x more swollen or inflamed. But the authors noted that "DTg mice did not exhibit altered susceptibility to C. rodentium relative to that of wild-type or OT-II mice" and OT-II depletion did not significantly modify gut inflammation. So it is not clear from these data whether anti-OVA IgA or Th17 response after Citrobacter rodentium infection were in fact driving those observed pathogenic changes in the DTg mice guts (use of IL-17KO OT-II cells would have provided some guidance on this matter).
In summary, in my view this study only showed that WT Citrobacter rodentium infection induces little Th17 response from self-reactive T cells, however it failed to show that such Th17 response had any consequential effect.