Human regulatory T cells (Tregs) are essential in maintaining immunological tolerance and suppress effector T cells. Tregs are commonly up-regulated in chronic infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and thereby hamper disease-specific immune responses and eradication of pathogens. The MEK/ERK signaling pathway is involved in regulation of the FoxP3 transcription factor, which directs a lineage-specific transcriptional program to define Tregs and control their suppressive function. Here, we aimed to target activation of disease-specific Tregs by inhibition of the MEK/ ERK signaling pathway based on the hypothesis that this would improve anti-HIV and anti- TB immunity. Stimulation of T cells from untreated TB (n = 12) and HIV (n = 8) patients with disease-specific antigens in vitro in the presence of the MEK inhibitor (MEKI) trametinib (GSK1120212) resulted in significant down-regulation of both FoxP3 levels (MFI) and fractions of resting (CD45RA+FoxP3+) and activated (CD45RA−FoxP3++) Tregs. MEKI also reduced the levels of specific T effector cells expressing the pro-inflammatory cytokines (IFN-γ, TNF-α and IL-2) in both HIV and TB patients. In conclusion, MEKIs modulate disease antigen-specific Treg activation and may have potential application in new treatment strategies in chronic infectious diseases where reduction of Treg activity would be favorable. Whether MEKIs can be used in current HIV or TB therapy regimens needs to be further investigated.
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