Interaction between T follicular helper (Tfh) cells and B cells is complex and involves various pathways, including the production of IL-21 by the Tfh cells. Secretion of IL-21 results in B cell differentiation toward immunoglobulin-producing plasmablasts. In patients after kidney transplantation, the formation of alloantibodies produced by donor antigen-activated B cells are a major cause of organ failure. In this allogeneic response, the role of IL-21-producing Tfh cells that regulate B cell differentiation is unknown. Here, we tested, in an alloantigen-driven setting, whether Tfh cell help signals control B cell differentiation with its dependency on IL-21. Pre-transplantation patient PBMCs were sorted into pure CD4posCXCR5pos Tfh cells and CD19posCD27pos memory B cells and stimulated with donor antigen in the presence or absence of an IL-21 receptor (IL-21R) antagonist (αIL-21R). Donor antigen stimulation initiated expression of the activation markers inducible co-stimulator (ICOS) and programmed death 1 (PD-1) on Tfh cells and a shift toward a mixed Tfh2 and Tfh17 phenotype. The memory B cells underwent class switch recombination and differentiated toward IgM- and IgG-producing plasmablasts. In the presence of αIL-21R, a dose-dependent inhibition of STAT3 phosphorylation was measured in both T and B cells. Blockade of the IL-21R did not have an effect on PD-1 and ICOS expression on Tfh cells but significantly inhibited B cell differentiation. The proportion of plasmablasts decreased by 78% in the presence of αIL-21R. Moreover, secreted IgM and IgG2 levels were significantly lower in the presence of αIL-21R. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that IL-21 produced by alloantigen-activated Tfh cells controls B cell differentiation toward antibody producing plasmablasts. The IL-21R might, therefore, be a useful target in organ transplantation to prevent antigen-driven immune responses leading to graft failure.

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Keywords Alloreactivity, B cell differentiation, Follicular T-helper cell, IL-21 receptor, Plasmablast
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Journal Frontiers in Immunology
de Leur, K. (Kitty), Dor, F.J.M.F, Dieterich, M, van der Laan, L.J.W, Hendriks, R.W, & Baan, C.C. (2017). IL-21 receptor antagonist inhibits differentiation of B cells toward plasmablasts upon alloantigen stimulation. Frontiers in Immunology, 8(MAR). doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.00306