Regulatory T cells (Tregs) are an integral part of peripheral tolerance, suppressing immune reactions against self-structures and thus preventing autoimmune diseases. Clinical approaches to adoptively transfer Tregs, or to deplete Tregs in cancer, are underway with promising first outcomes. Because the number of naturally occurring Tregs (nTregs) is very limited, studying certain Treg features using in vitro induced Tregs (iTregs) can be advantageous. To date, the best although not absolutely specific protein marker to delineate Tregs is the transcription factor FOXP3. Despite the importance of Tregs including non-redundant roles of peripherally induced Tregs, the protocols to generate iTregs are currently controversial, particularly for human cells. This protocol therefore describes the in vitro differentiation of human CD4+FOXP3+ iTregs from human naïve T cells using a range of Treg-inducing factors (TGF-β plus IL-2 only, or their combination with retinoic acid, rapamycin or butyrate) in parallel. It also describes the phenotyping of these cells by flow cytometry and qRT-PCR. These protocols result in reproducible expression of FOXP3 and other Treg signature genes and enable the study of general FOXP3-regulatory mechanisms as well as protocol-specific effects to delineate the impact of certain factors. iTregs can be utilized to study various phenotypic aspects as well as molecular mechanisms of Treg induction. Detailed molecular studies are facilitated by relatively large cell numbers that can be obtained. A limitation for the application of iTregs is the relative instability of FOXP3 expression in these cells compared to nTregs. iTregs generated by these protocols can also be used for functional assays such as studying their suppressive function, in which iTregs induced by TGF-β plus retinoic acid and rapamycin display superior suppressive activity. However, the suppressive capacity of iTregs can differ from nTregs and the use of appropriate controls is crucial.
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