Study question: Do peripheral blood levels of cytokines, chemokines, and transcription factors for different T helper (Th) cell subsets change in relation to high and low estrogen/progestogen states in women with multiple sclerosis (MS) and healthy controls with and without combined hormonal contraceptives (CHC)?
Summary answer: Our findings indicate a general activation of peripheral blood T cells and B cells during high estrogen/progestogen phases with higher levels of transcription factors associated with both Th1 (TBX21) and Th2 (GATA3) subsets of T cells and the B cell-associated chemokine CXCL13.
What is known already: There are some indications that sex steroids may positively affect MS clinically and immunologically.
Study design, size, duration: A total of 60 women were included. Paired blood samples were drawn in high and low estrogen/progestogen phases during the same cycle in women using or not using CHC.
Participants/materials, setting, methods: Participants were female MS patients and healthy controls with and without CHC. Concentrations of cytokines and chemokines were measured using multiplex bead technology and expression of transcription factors in blood cells was determined by qPCR. Owing to possible differences in cell composition, expression of Th-associated transcription factors were normalized to the T cell-specific transcription factor CD3E.
Main results and the role of chance: Sixty women were included but 13 women dropped out, leaving 47 women to the statistical analyses. In healthy controls using CHC, both TBX21, and GATA3 expression was higher in the high estrogen/progestogen phase than in the low estrogen/progestogen phase. TBX21 expression in high estrogen/progestogen phase differed significantly between groups with the highest levels in healthy controls without CHC. In all MS patients as well as in healthy controls using CHC, the concentrations of CXCL13 was significantly higher in the high estrogen/progestogen phase compared to the low estrogen/progestogen phase.
Limitations, reasons for caution: The low number of participants. A majority of the MS patients were using immunomodulatory drugs which may have interfered with the results. The study design makes it impossible to differ between estrogenic and progestogenic effects.
Wider implications of the findings: Our findings show that high and low levels of estrogens and/or progestogens differently affect immune parameters related to Th cell subsets as well as B cells. The differences between high- and low estrogen/progestogen phases were most obvious in women using CHC indicating that CHC is more potent than 17β-Estradiol/progesterone in inducing immune changes in both MS patients and healthy women.
Study funding/competing interest(s): This study was funded by the County Councils of Östergötland and Västernorrland, Sweden. No author have any conflicts of interest to declare.