Galectin-9 (Gal-9), a β-galactoside binding mammalian lectin, regulates immune responses by reducing pro-inflammatory IL-17-producing Th cells (Th17) and increasing anti-inflammatory Foxp3+ regulatory T cells (Treg) in vitro and in vivo. These functions of Gal-9 are thought to be exerted by binding to receptor molecules on the cell surface. However, Gal-9 lacks a signal peptide for secretion and is predominantly located in the cytoplasm, which raises questions regarding how and which cells secrete Gal-9 in vivo. Since Gal-9 expression does not necessarily correlate with its secretion, Gal-9-secreting cells in vivo have been elusive. We report here that CD4 T cells expressing Gal-9 on the cell surface (Gal-9+ Th cells) secrete Gal-9 upon T cell receptor (TCR) stimulation, but other CD4 T cells do not, although they express an equivalent amount of intracellular Gal-9. Gal-9+ Th cells expressed interleukin (IL)-10 and transforming growth factor (TGF)-β but did not express Foxp3. In a co-culture experiment, Gal-9+ Th cells regulated Th17/Treg development in a manner similar to that by exogenous Gal-9, during which the regulation by Gal-9+ Th cells was shown to be sensitive to a Gal-9 antagonist but insensitive to IL-10 and TGF-β blockades. Further elucidation of Gal-9+ Th cells in humans indicates a conserved role of these cells through evolution and implies the possible utility of these cells for diagnosis or treatment of immunological diseases.
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