Pregnancy-induced fluctuations in functional T-cell subsets in multiple sclerosis patients
Background: During pregnancy, especially during the third trimester, multiple sclerosis (MS) disease activity is reduced. It is not known which factors mediate this disease amelioration. Objective: To study whether the frequency of two important T-cell subsets, T-helper 17 (Th17) and regulatory T-cells (Treg), is altered in relation to pregnancy-induced MS disease amelioration. Methods: Each individual was tested longitudinally, after sampling of blood at timepoints before pregnancy, during the first and third trimester, and in the early post-partum period. Frequencies of Th17 cells were assessed after short (4 hours) re-stimulation of peripheral blood lymphocytes with PMA and ionomycin, followed by flow cytometry using CD4, CD45RO and IL-17A antibodies. To assess peripheral blood Treg frequencies, we used six-colour flow cytometry with antibodies against CD3, CD4, CD25, CD127, FoxP3 and HLA-DR, to specifically identify Treg. Results: Both MS patients (n = 9) and controls (n = 8) displayed unaltered Th17 frequencies during pregnancy. In contrast, circulating Treg frequency significantly decreased in MS patients (n = 15) during the first and third (p < 0.001) trimesters compared with the period before pregnancy. In the post-partum period, the frequency of circulating Treg again resurged back to near pre-pregnancy levels. In controls (n = 15) comparable frequency kinetics were observed in that post-partum a significant increase in circulating Treg frequency was detected compared with the first (p < 0.001) and third (p = 0.012) trimester. Conclusions: Third trimester amelioration is not related to the fluctuation of circulating Th17 cells. Furthermore, a paradoxical decrease of immunosuppressive circulating Tregs can be observed during this phase, both in MS patients and controls.