Treg therapy is being tested in clinical trials in transplantation and autoimmune diseases, however, the impact of inflammation on Tregs is unclear. In this study, we challenged human Tregs ex-vivo with pro-inflammatory cytokines, TNFa and IL-6. These cytokines enhanced Treg proliferation induced by anti-CD3 and anti-CD28 or CD28 superagonist (CD28SA) while maintaining high expression of FOXP3 and HELIOS, demethylated FOXP3 enhancer, and low expression of cytokines IFNg, IL-4 and IL-17. Blocking TNF receptor signaling using etanercept or deletion of TNF receptor 2 using CRISPR/Cas9 blunted Treg proliferation and attenuated FOXP3 and HELIOS expression, revealing the importance of TNFR2 signaling in Treg proliferation and lineage stability. The robust proliferation induced by CD28SA with IL-6 and TNFa may be adopted for the expansion of therapeutic Tregs. Metabolomics analysis showed that Tregs expanded with CD28SA plus cytokines had more active glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation, increased energy production, and higher antioxidant potential. Finally, CD28SA plus cytokine-expanded Tregs had comparable suppressive activity in vitro and in vivo in a humanized mouse model of graft-versus-host-disease when compared to Tregs expanded using the conventional protocol. These results demonstrate that human Tregs positively respond to proinflammatory cytokines with enhanced proliferation without compromising their lineage identity or function.
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