Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune arthropathy characterized by chronic articular inflammation. Methotrexate (MTX) remains the first-line therapy for RA and its anti-inflammatory effect is associated with the maintenance of high levels of extracellular adenosine (ADO). Nonetheless, up to 40% of RA patients are resistant to MTX treatment and this is linked to a reduction of CD39 expression, an ectoenzyme involved in the generation of extracellular ADO by ATP metabolism, on circulating regulatory T cells (Tregs). However, the mechanism mediating the reduction of CD39 expression on Tregs is unknown. Here we demonstrated that the impairment in TGF-β signalling lead to the reduction of CD39 expression on Tregs that accounts for MTX resistance. TGF-β increases CD39 expression on Tregs via the activation of TGFBRII/TGFBRI, SMAD2 and the transcription factor CREB, which is activated in a p38-dependent manner and induces CD39 expression by promoting ENTPD1 gene transcription. Importantly, unresponsive patients to MTX (UR-MTX) show reduced expression of TGFBR2 and CREB1 and decreased levels of p-SMAD2 and p-CREB in Tregs compared to MTX-responsive patients (R-MTX). Furthermore, RA patients carrying at least one mutant allele for rs1431131 (AT or AA) of the TGFBR2 gene are significantly (p = 0.0006) associated with UR-MTX. Therefore, we have uncovered a molecular mechanism for the reduced CD39 expression on Tregs, and revealed potential targets for therapeutic intervention for MTX resistance.
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CD39, Methotrexate, Regulatory T cells, Rheumatoid arthritis, TGF-β signalling