Inhibitors of calcineurin phosphatase activity (CNIs) such as cyclosporin A (CsA) are widely used to treat tissue transplant rejection and acute graft-versus-host disease (aGVHD), for which inhibition of NFAT-dependent gene expression is the mechanistic paradigm. We recently reported that CNIs inhibit TCR-proximal signaling by preventing calcineurin-mediated dephosphorylation of LckS59, an inhibitory modification, raising the possibility of another mechanism by which CNIs suppress immune responses. Here we utilized T cells from mice that express LckS59A, which cannot accept a phosphate at residue 59, to initiate aGVHD. Although CsA inhibited NFAT-dependent gene upregulation in allo-aggressive T cells expressing either LckWT or LckS59A, it was ineffective in treating disease when the T cells expressed LckS59A. Two important NFAT-independent T cell functions were found to be CsA-resistant in LckS59A T cells: upregulation of the cytolytic protein perforin in tissue-infiltrating CD8+ T cells and antigen-specific T:DC (dendritic cell) adhesion and clustering in lymph nodes. These results demonstrate that effective treatment of aGVHD by CsA requires NFAT-independent inhibition of TCR signaling. Given that NFATs are widely expressed and off-target effects are a major limitation in CNI use, it is possible that targeting TCR-associated calcineurin directly may provide effective therapies with less toxicity.
Shizuka Otsuka, Nicolas Melis, Matthias M. Gaida, Debjani Dutta, Roberto Weigert, Jonathan D. Ashwell