Interleukin-17A- or tumor necrosis factor α-mediated increase in proliferation of T cells cocultured with synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cells in rheumatoid arthritis
© Zhang et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 27 February 2013
Accepted: 8 October 2013
Published: 29 October 2013
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) represent promising applications in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, the inflammatory niche in the RA synovium could adversely affect MSC function. This study was designed to investigate biologic and immunologic properties of synovium-derived MSCs (SMSCs) in RA, with particular focus on whether cytokines can mediate increase of proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs in RA.
Compared with SMSCs from eight healthy donors (HDs), SMSCs from 22 patients with RA (RAp) were evaluated. The methyl thiazolyl tetrazolium (MTT) assay was used to assess cell-population doubling and viability. Multipotentiality of SMSCs was examined by using appropriate culture conditions. Flow cytometry was used to investigate the marker phenotype of SMSCs. Immunomodulation potential of SMSCs was examined by mixed peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) reactions, and then by PBMCs or synovial T cells with or without the addition of inflammatory cytokines (interleukin-17A (IL-17A), tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), and interferon-γ (IFN-γ)) after stimulation with phytohemagglutinin (PHA), respectively.
SMSCs from RA patients (RA-SMSCs) showed normal population doubling, cell viability, multiple differentiation characteristics, and surface markers. In either mixed PBMC reactions or PBMC proliferation stimulated with PHA, RA-SMSCs showed normal immunomodulation function compared with SMSCs from healthy donors (HD-SMSCs). However, the increase in proliferation of T cells was observed when IL-17A and TNF-α were added alone or in combination.
Our data suggest that the inflammatory niche, especially these cytokines, may increase the proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs in RA.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a complex autoimmune disorder involved with multiple systems. Its characteristic is the destruction of cartilage and bone by the inflammatory mediators, such as interleukin-17A (IL-17A), tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), and interferon-γ (IFN-γ). The etiology of RA is still under study, and multiple cells are thought to contribute to the pathogenic progression, in which T-cells  and fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLSs)  are involved in a complex network leading to joint damage. Activation of Th1 cells and Th17 cells in the development of cell-mediated autoimmune arthritis has been investigated [3, 4]. Conversely, Th2 cells and Treg cells maintain homeostasis in RA and in animal models of collagen-induced arthritis (CIA) [5, 6].
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are multipotent progenitor cells. Although MSCs originally were isolated from bone marrow (BM), similar populations have been isolated from other tissues, including the synovial membrane , synovial fluid (SF) , tendon , periosteum , and joint fat . These cells have the ability to differentiate into various other mesodermal cell lineages, including chondrocytes, adipocytes, and osteoblasts . Another property of MSCs is their ability to inhibit the proliferation of multiple lymphocytes [13, 14]. Because of their immunosuppression effects, MSCs represent promising applications in treatment of acute graft-versus-host disease . However, the specific mechanisms by which bone marrow-derived MSCs (BMSCs) exhibit their immnoregulatory ability remain under discussion, and a difference is noted between the therapeutic effects for CIA models by MSCs [16, 17]. The feasibility and safety of MSCs treatment have yet to be determined in larger cohort studies [18, 19].
Recent studies have focused on an important role of synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cells (SMSCs) in local environment remediation [20, 21]. It has been demonstrated that these processes contain direct recruitment of synovial cells into chondral defects  and their homing to injured sites . With respect to RA, it is still important to consider the degree of the disease related to the inflammatory milieu, because inflammatory cytokines, such as such as IL-17A, TNF–α, and IFN-γ, have previously been shown to influence the functions of FLS and MSCs in the inflamed synovium . Before contemplating clinical studies with MSCs in patients with RA (RAp), the proliferative and immunomodulatory capacity of SMSCs in this inflammatory condition must be explored. Inspired by the study of Farida Djouad and collegues , which revealed a reversal of immunosuppressive properties of MSCs by environmental parameters related to inflammation in CIA, we hypothesized that the immunomodulation function of SMSCs by IL-17A or TNF-α in RA should be reduced. Therefore, this study was designed to investigate biologic and immunologic properties of SMSCs in RA, especially focusing on whether cytokines can mediate the increase of proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs in RA.
SMSCs from healthy donors (HD-SMSCs) and patients with RA (RA-SMSCs)
The study was approved by the Ethics Committee at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital, and informed consent was obtained from all study subjects. Synovial tissue biopsies from the suprapatella pouch were obtained from 22 RAp and eight HD (For practical reasons, we chose patients with meniscus injury who were undergoing arthroscopy, and without any systemic immune disease or connective tissue disease, as the healthy donors) by using 3.5-mm grasping biopsy forceps under direct vision with arthroscopy. The RAp fulfilled the American College of Rheumatology criteria for RA . The degree of macroscopic joint inflammation was evaluated by using the Visual Analogue Score (VAS). Scores (scaled between 0 and 100) were based on visual image of vasculature (redness and vessels due to hyperemia) in arthroscopy . Synovial tissues were finely minced and digested with 0.4% collagenase (Gibco BRL Co.Ltd.,Gaithersburg, MD, USA) in high-glucose Dulbecco modified Eagle medium (DMEM) containing 10% fetal bovine serum (FBS), 100 U/ml penicillin, and 100 U/ml streptomycin. After overnight incubation at 37°C, cells were collected by centrifugation, washed twice, resuspended in high-glucose DMEM supplemented with 10% FBS, plated in a T25 culture flask, and allowed to attach for 7 days. Nonadherent cells were removed by changing the medium. Cells were passaged when reaching near confluence according to previous report .
Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) isolation and synovial T-cells expansion
Clinical status of RAp and HD
Number of Patients
42 (38 to 56)
40 (35 to 46)
Disease duration (years)
3.1 (0.2 to 5.5)
2.6 (0.1 to 4.6)
Treatment, patients (%)
MTX + SSZ
14 (5 to 35)
1 (0 to 2)
Synovial T cells were expanded from synovial tissues of RAp cultured for 14 days in RPMI-1640 medium supplemented with 10% FBS, in the presence of recombinant IL-2 (20 IU/ml; R&D Systems, Minneapolis, MN, USA). Cultures were fed every 3 days. T cells were then collected and analyzed with a cell sorter (FACS Vantage SE cell sorter; Becton Dickinson). More than 95% of the cells expressed CD3.
SMSCs population doubling and viability test
SMSCs (P4) were vaccinated into 96-well plates at a concentration of 1 × 104/ml, in a final volume of 100 μl fresh medium (10% FBS + high-glucose DMEM). For cell counting, three wells of each sample were digested by using 0.25% trypsin-ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid per day up to 12 days. With these data for cell-population doubling, we acquired the SMSC growth curves. With methyl thiazolyl tetrazolium (MTT, 5 mg/ml; Sigma), dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO; Sigma), and an EL800 microplate reader (BioTek Instruments, Winooski, VT, USA) that was to detect absorbance at 490 nm, we made the SMSCs viability curves in the same way, according to the day and the absorbance. Fresh medium was used as a negative control.
In vitro differentiation potential assay
For the in vitro differentiation assays, three procedures (adipogenic differentiation, osteogenic differentiation, and chondrogenic differentiation) were used, as previous described . The intracellular lipid accumulation as an indicator was visualized on day 21 with Oil Red O staining. The alkaline phosphatase (ALP) of SMSCs was assayed by using Cell ALP Staining assay (Nanjing Jiancheng, China), according to the recommendations of the manufacturers on day7 and alizarin red staining (AR-S, 1%, pH 7.2; Sigma) on day 28, respectively. The chondrogenic differentiations were confirmed with alcian blue staining. Meanwhile, the experimental controls were established by culture of SMSCs (P4) in fresh medium, and only fresh medium was used as a negative control. All measurements were tested in triplicate. An inverted phase-contrast microscope (Nikon Eclipse Ti-S; Nikon Corporation, Japan) visualized the images.
Immuno-phenotype of SMSCs
Antibodies used to detect phenotype synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cells (SMSCs) with flow cytometry
Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc. (Santa Cruz, CA, USA)
Southern Biotech (Birmingham, AL, USA)
Becton Dickinson (Bedford, MA, USA)
Caltag (Burlingame, CA, USA)
Becton Dickinson (Bedford, MA, USA)
Becton Dickinson (Bedford, MA, USA)
AbD Serotec (MorphoSys, UK)
Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc. (Santa Cruz, CA, USA)
Immunomodulation potential of SMSCs
The suppressive effects of SMSCs (P4) on mixed PBMCs reaction (MLR) and PBMCs proliferation stimulated by phytohemagglutinin (PHA) (4 μg/ml; Roche, Mannheim, Germany) were measured by using the MTT assay  and the 3H-TdR assay , as described previously. SMSCs were seeded in 96-well culture plates for 6 hours for adherence, and then irradiated (30 Gy) with Co60.
For the MLR, allogeneic PBMCs (15 × 104 cells/cm2) from an HD were mixed with PBMCs from another unrelated HD in identical mounts. The mixed PBMCs were then mixed with different ratios (3 × 105 cells/cm2 = 1:1 SMSC: PBMCs ratio, 15 × 104 cells/cm2 =1:2, 6 × 104 cells/cm2 =1:5, 3 × 104 cells/cm2 = 1:10, 15 × 103 cells/cm2 = 1:20) of SMSCs (experiment wells) or without SMSCs (blank wells) in 96-well culture plates to ensure efficient cell-cell contact for 5 days in 0.2 ml modified RPMI-1640 medium (Gibco) supplemented with 10% FBS.
The PBMCs proliferation assay only uses one autologous or allogeneic PBMCs reaction (30 × 104 cells/cm2) from a healthy donor or patient with RA stimulated with PHA. Inhibitory or proliferative effects were measured on day 5 by using the MTT assay or the 3H-TdR assay. All measurements were performed in triplicate. Results were expressed as the mean (% inhibition or % proliferation) ± SD.
Continuous variables were expressed as the mean ± SD, and categoric variables were presented as frequencies and percentages. The significance of the results was determined by using the unpaired Student t test, χ2 test, and repeated-measure tests with Bonferroni correction. Data analysis was performed with statistical software (SPSS, version 15.0 for Windows; SPSS Inc., Armonk, NY, USA). P < 0.05 was considered statistically significant.
Population doubling and viability of SMSCs from RAp are normal
The RA-SMSCs growth curves (data not shown) have the same tendency as those for HD-SMSCs. The SMSCs population-doubling data of these two groups at each day (1 to 12 days) were tested by repeated-measures tests with Bonferroni correction, and the statistical result indicates that no statistically significant difference was present in SMSCs population doubling between RAp and HD (P = 0.157). For SMSCs viability at each point of time from 1 to 12 days, the difference of optical density (OD) at 490 nm between RAp and HD also was not statistically significant, as determined by cellular viability assays (P = 0.161).
Triple differentiation potentials of RA-SMSCs in vitro were not changed
Normal suppressive potential of RA-SMSCs on either MLR or PBMCs proliferation stimulated with PHA
Involvement of IL-17A, TNF-α in the increase of the proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs
To understand why SMSCs do not display any immunosuppressive effects in RAp, we tested the potential role of the inflammatory environment on SMSCs behavior. We therefore investigated the role of various cytokines (IL-17A, TNF-α, IFN-γ) on the interaction of synovial T cells from RAp with autologous SMSCs. Because the best ratio of SMSCs to PBMCs was 1:1, we used this cell ratio for subsequent experiments. Irradiated SMSCs and synovial T cells were cultured alone or were cocultured at a 1:1 ratio for 24 hours in the presence or absence of PHA (4 μg/ml), and exogenous IL-17A (50 ng/ml), TNF-α (50 ng/ml), or IFN-γ (50 ng/ml) was added either alone or in combination. Each experiment was performed in triplicate and repeated at least 3 times. The coculture of HD-SMSCs and synovial T cells from RAp were used as the experimental control.
We demonstrated that RA-SMSCs showed normal population doubling, cell viability, multiple differentiation characteristics, and surface markers; and also in either MLR or PBMCs proliferation stimulated with PHA, RA-SMSCs showed normal immunomodulation function compared with HD-SMSCs. Impressively, the increase of proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs was observed when IL-17A and TNF-α were added alone or in combination.
Although recent studies suggested that the imbalance of Th17/Treg cells plays a crucial role in the progression of RA , the mechanisms leading to their study in the RA synovium remain unknown. Moreover, even through some cytokines, especially IL-6, IL-23, and transforming growth factor β (TGF-β), which facilitate the differentiation of Th17 , are demonstrated in the RA synovium; the other cytokines, such as IFN-γ, which counteract their differentiation, are also found [1, 2]. In addition, the immune regulation of T cells by MSCs has also been demonstrated [7, 33]. Although previous studies have assumed that the functional deficiency of reg cells in RA may be the reason , others have proposed that the interaction of BMSCs with T cells promotes the activation and expansion of Th17 cells . In conclusion, among the cytokines produced by FLSs and synovial T cells, IL-17A, TNF–α, and IFN-γ have been found to play pivotal roles in RA [3, 4, 36]. We thus investigated whether these cytokines could influence the immunosuppressive properties of SMSCs.
To date, only a few studies have explored MSCs in RA, and these were focused on BMSCs [35, 37]. To our knowledge, our study is the first investigation describing the interaction between the inflammatory niche and RA-SMSCs. In RA, in viv o MSCs showed an inflammation-related reduction in numbers. Extensive proliferation leading to synovial hyperplasia could explain this reduction . Clonal BMSCs from RAp (RA-BMSCs) were more heterogeneous in their proliferative capacity and, on average, grew more slowly than clonal BMSCs from patients with osteoarthritis. This could be explained by variable premature telomere shortening previously observed for RA-BMSCs . Our data suggest that RA-SMSCs showed normal biologic characteristic, such as cell-population doubling, cell viability, multiple differentiation, and surface markers, compared with HD-SMSCs. Previous study has suggested a negative relation between SMSC chondrogenic and clonogenic capacities and VAS in RA , and our study found a negative relation between alcian blue intensity and VAS (data not show) could explain normal biological property. As VAS of RAp in our study was low (Table 1), chondrogenic capacities may be affected by this degree of clinical status. Moreover, previous SMSCs were isolated from synovial tissues at the time of arthroplasty for degenerative OA or RA , and the VAS of these patients was almost as high.
Although RA-BMSCs seem to be similar to normal BMSCs, in that they can also inhibit the proliferation of autologous and allogeneic PBMCs in vitro, Evangelia Yannaki  demonstrated that BMSCs lose their immunomodulatory properties when infused in the inflammatory micromilieu of RA. They found conditioning of the recipient with bortezomib alters the disease microenvironment, enabling BMSCs to modulate arthritis. The discrepancy of MSCs function between in vitro and in vivo conditions, implies that a common endogenous stimulus may alter the in vivo performance of MSCs and that the immune privilege ascribed to MSCs may be susceptible to the influence of the microenvironment. We showed that the increase of proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs was observed when IL-17A and TNF-α were added alone or in combination in vitro. Thus, we speculated that those cytokines may influence the immunosuppressive properties of SMSCs in RA. In vitro, failure of SMSCs to induce immunomodulation in severely inflammatory conditions may reflect the dynamic nature and complex network of specific microenvironments in vivo.
The major limitation of the present study is that we did not investigate the mechanism by which IL-17A and TNF-α affect proliferation of T cells. Although previous study agree with an effect on immunosuppressive properties of MSCs , but a direct effect on T cells, rendering them resistant to suppression, cannot be excluded. Further research is required.
Our findings demonstrate the existence of SMSCs in RA and the inflammatory micromilieu of RA increases the proliferation of T cells cocultured with SMSCs. This information furthers our understanding of the etiology of RA, and strategies to alter the inflammatory milieu before SMSC action may be of critical importance.
Zhengzheng Zhang and Yuanjing Ding are the co-first authors.
Bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cell
Fetal bovine serum
Synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cells from healthy donors
Mixed peripheral blood mononuclear cells reaction
Mesenchymal stem cell
Methyl thiazolyl tetrazolium
Peripheral blood mononuclear cell
Patient with RA
Bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells from RA patients
Synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cells from RA patients
Synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cells
Transforming growth factor-β3
Tumor necrosis factor-α
Visual analogue score.
The authors thank Dr Jing Wei at Sun Yat-sen University for flow cytometry, and Dr Lihui Wang for help with the samples. They also thank Dr Zehong Zhou for help with statistical analysis and writing. The study was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (81101392) and Guangdong Provincial Science and Technology Project (2011B031800017).
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