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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Immunol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 August 27.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2929001

Suppression Of Autoimmune Diabetes By Soluble Galectin-1


Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is a T-cell-mediated autoimmune disease that targets the β-cells of the pancreas. We investigated the ability of soluble galectin-1 (gal-1), an endogenous lectin that promotes T-cell apoptosis, to down-regulate the T-cell response that destroys the pancreatic β-cells. We demonstrated that in NOD mice, gal-1-therapy reduces significantly the amount of Th1 cells and augments the number of T-cells secreting IL-4 or IL-10 specific for islet cell-Ag, and causes peripheral deletion of β-cell-reactive T-cells. Administration of gal-1 prevented onset of hyperglycemia in NOD mice at early and sub-clinical stages of T1D. Preventive gal-1-therapy shifted the composition of the insulitis into an infiltrate that did not invade the islets, and that contained a significantly reduced number of Th1 cells and a higher percentage of CD4+ T-cells with content of IL-4, IL-5 or IL-10. The beneficial effects of gal-1 correlated with the ability of the lectin to trigger apoptosis of the T-cell subsets that cause β-cell damage, while sparing naïve T-cells, Th2 lymphocytes and regulatory T-cells in NOD mice. Importantly, gal-1 reversed β-cell autoimmunity in NOD mice with ongoing T1D, with reversal of hyperglycemia. Since gal-1-therapy did not cause major side effects or β-cell toxicity in NOD mice, the use of gal-1 to control β-cell autoimmunity represents a novel alternative for treatment of sub-clinical or ongoing T1D.

Keywords: Diabetes, Autoimmunity, Th1/Th2 cells


Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is a progressive T-cell-mediated autoimmune disorder that destroys the insulin-producing β-cells of the pancreatic islets (1,2). The only possible cure for T1D is the control of the T-cell autoimmunity against β-cells together with the recovery and/or replacement of the destroyed β-cell mass.

Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins that recognize specific oligosaccharides on glycoproteins or glycolipids (3,4). Mammalian lectins are known in immunology for participating in leukocyte adhesion and opsonization. The ability of some lectins, particularly galectin-1 (gal-1), to down-regulate T-cell immunity (5,6) and inflammation (7,8) has been discovered more recently. Several of the 14 members of the galectin family recognize as ligands galactose-containing saccharides (3,4). Gal-1 preferentially binds lactosamine (galactose β1,4 N-Acetyl glucosamine) sequences that can be present on O- or N-linked glycans. While lactosamine sequences can be found on many glycoproteins, gal-1 preferentially binds to CD7, CD43 and CD45 on T-cells (9) and to extracellular matrix proteins such as laminin (10) and fibronectin (11).

The finding that gal-1 induces apoptosis of thymocytes (6) and T-cells (5) suggests that this endogenous lectin may play a role in thymic tolerance and peripheral T-cell homeostasis and that gal-1 could have a potential use for therapy of autoimmune diseases and graft rejection. Administration of soluble gal-1 or cells engineered to express transgenic gal-1 has been employed to down-regulate T-cell alloimmunity in graft versus host disease in mice (12) and in murine surrogate models of T-cell-mediated autoimmunity induced by immunization with self-Ag or haptens (1318).

Unlike the experimental models employed so far to test the effects of gal-1 on autoimmunity, the NOD mice constitute a unique system where development of T-cell autoimmunity against β-cells occurs spontaneously and that closely resembles T1D in humans (19). Therefore, the NOD mice constitute an ideal tool to explore the clinical potential of gal-1-therapy in autoimmune disorders. In both NOD mice and humans, lymphocytes begin to infiltrate the islets of Langerhans (insulitis) before development of overt diabetes and destruction of β-cells and hyperglycemia (20). CD4 Th1 (21,22) and CD8 T cells (23,24) are responsible for the β-cell destruction whereas the role of Th-17 lymphocytes remains still uncertain (25).

We have previously demonstrated that administration of dendritic cells (DC) expressing transgenic gal-1 delays onset of hyperglycemia in the NOD adoptive transfer model (26). However, the preventive effect of these DC on T1D was not indefinite and all mice eventually become diabetic, an effect probably due to the short-life and limited migration of the genetically engineered DC, and the fact that gal-1 induces maturation of DC with the consequent increase in their immunogenicity (27,28). Besides, in vitro generation of genetically-engineered DC is a complex, time-consuming and difficult to standardize technique with still limited applicability in humans, compared to the simple administration of soluble gal-1.

Over the past, several strategies have been employed to prevent T1D in NOD mice, but only a very limited number of them have cured existing T1D (reviewed in 29). Therefore, the ability of gal-1 to target activated T-cells makes this lectin a promising tool to treat T1D, which is diagnosed in patients at diabetes onset or late sub-clinical stages when the diabetogenic T-cells are already activated. In this study, we show that therapy with soluble recombinant gal-1 prevented onset of T1D in NOD mice, which developed a non-pathogenic leukocyte infiltrate around the pancreatic islets. The preventive effect of gal-1 on T1D was significantly associated with (i) reduction in the Th1 immunity and increase in the number of CD4+ T cells secreting IL-4 or IL-10 in response to β-cell Ag, and (ii) peripheral deletion of β-cell reactive T-cells. This latter effect was caused by the ability of the lectin to induce apoptosis of the T-cell subsets that promote β-cell damage, while sparing those subpopulations with a more protective role against T1D. Importantly, administration of gal-1 to NOD mice also prevented T1D at sub-clinical stages of the disease and reversed β-cell autoimmunity in mice with ongoing T1D. Our findings suggest that the use of gal-1, an endogenous lectin with no apparent β-cell toxicity or major side effects, constitutes an efficient and novel approach to prevent diabetes and more importantly, to suppress ongoing β-cell autoimmunity in sub-clinical or overt T1D.

Materials and Methods

Animals and reagents

NOD/LtJ, NOD.CB17-Prkdcscid/J (NODSCID) and BALB/c were from The Jackson Laboratories. Studies were approved by the University of Pittsburgh Animal Research and Care Committees. DTT, OVA, and 2,4,6-trinitrochlorobenzene (TNCB), D-glucose, β-lactose, PMA, ionomycin, and brefeldin A were from Sigma. Recombinant human gal-1 and biotinylated gal-1 were produced as described (30). The BW514PhaR2.1 (PhaR2.1) cell line was a gift from Dr. M. Pierce (University of Georgia, Athens, GA). Neutralizing mAb against IL-4 (clone 11B11) or IL-10 (clone JES5-2A5), and purified rat IgG for in vivo studies were purchased from BioXcell. The rest of the mAb were from BD-PharMingen, unless specified.

Gal-1 treatment and glucose tolerance test

Mice were injected (i.p.) with 100µg of gal-1 in PBS/ 8mM DTT (200µl) or with PBS/ 8mM DTT alone, 3 times a week for different lengths of time. In some experiments, NOD mice received gal-1-therapy (from the 6th to the 24th wk of age) in combination with neutralizing IL-4 or IL-10 mAb (from the 14th to 20th wk of age), the latter at doses of 500µg (i.p.) 3 times a week during the first week, and 300µg twice a week thereafter. Control mice received purified rat IgG at the same doses. Diabetes was diagnosed when glycemia reached ≥ 300 mg/dl in 2 consecutive readings. I.p. glucose tolerance tests were performed as described (31). Before glucose challenge, mice were fasted for 16 h. Blood samples were taken from the tail vein before fasting and 0, 15, 30, 60, 90 and 120 minutes after glucose injection.

Contact hypersensitivity (CH) and detection of serum Ab

NOD mice were sensitized (day 0) by application of 50 µl of TNCB (5% in acetone/olive oil, 4:1) or vehicle on the abdomen skin and were challenged (day 6) by application of TNCB (1%) on the right ear and vehicle on the left ear (control). The thickness of the right (challenged) and left ear (control) was measured with an electronic caliper 24, 48 and 72 h after challenge. CH was determined as the swelling on the hapten-challenged ear compared with that of the vehicle-treated ear and was expressed as percentage increase in ear thickness (mean±SD). Each group consisted of at least 3 mice and each experiment was performed twice. For detection of OVA-specific Ab in serum, NOD mice were immunized (tail base) with OVA (1 priming + 1 boosting dose, 7 days apart). Seven days after the last immunization, the titers of IgG against OVA were assessed by ELISA in serum samples using OVA-coated ELISA plates.

Histopathological analysis

Fragments of pancreas, skin, liver, kidney, gut, spleen, heart, lungs, thymus and lymph nodes were fixed in 4% formaldehyde and processed for H&E staining. Insulitis was scored by examining at least 30 islets per mouse from 2–3 different sections and given the following score: 0: no insulitis; 1: peri-insulitis; 2: insulitis in < 50% of the islet and 3: insulitis in > 50% of the islet. Percentage of insulitis was calculated by dividing the number of islets in each category by the total number of islets examined. For detection of insulin, sections were blocked with 5% normal goat serum and the avidin/biotin blocking kit (Vector), incubated with human insulin mAb (BioGenex), biotin anti-mouse Igs and avidin-biotin/peroxidase (Vector). Endogenous peroxidase was blocked by passages in 70% ethanol, 1% H2O2 in methanol and 70% ethanol. Peroxidase activity was developed with 3,3’-diaminobenzidine (Sigma).

Fluorescence microscopy

Fragments of pancreas and pancreatic lymph nodes (PLN) were embedded in Tissue-Tek OCT (Miles Laboratories), snap frozen and stored at −80°C. Cryostat sections (8 µm) were mounted on slides treated with Vectabond (Vector) and fixed in cold 96% ethanol. Sections were blocked with normal goat serum and the avidin/biotin blocking kit. For detection of cytokines or FoxP3 in CD4 T-cells, sections were labeled with alexa fluor 488-CD4 mAb (Caltag) and one of the following reagents: i) biotin-IFN-γ, biotin-IL-4, biotin-IL-5, biotin-IL-10 or biotin-IL-17 mAb followed by Cy3-streptavidin, or ii) FoxP3 mAb (MF333F, Alexis Biochemicals) followed by Cy3-conjugated F(ab’)2 donkey anti-rat IgG (Jackson ImmunoRes.). For labeling of CD11c and F4/80, sections were incubated with CD11c mAb plus biotin F4/80 mAb followed by Cy3 anti-hamster IgG and Cy2-streptavidin. For detection of IFN-γ in CD8 T-cells, sections were labeled with biotin-IFN-γ and Cy3-streptavidin plus alexa fluor 488-CD8 mAb. For co-detection of CD4 and CD8 T cells, sections were incubated with alexa fluor 488-CD4 mAb and biotin-CD8α mAb (eBioscience) followed by Cy3-streptavidin (Jackson ImmunoRes.). For assessment of T-cell apoptosis, sections were fixed in paraformaldehyde and labeled with alexa fluor 488-CD3 mAb followed by TUNEL staining (Roche). Sections of pancreas were labeled with anti-Ki67 mAb (GeneTex) plus Cy3-anti-rabbit Igs in combination with mouse anti-human insulin mAb, biotin-anti-mouse Igs and Cy2-streptavidin. Nuclei were counterstained with DAPI (Molecular Probes). Tissue sections were analyzed using an AxioStar Plus microscope (Zeiss) equipped with epi-fluorescence and a digital camera (AxioCam MRc, Zeiss). The percentages of infiltrating cells with cytokine content in the islets were calculated, following image acquisition of 30 islets per experimental group, with the image analyzing software AxioVision (Carl Zeiss Vision Imaging Systems, Thornwood, NY).

ELISPOT assays

Spleen cells from NOD mice treated with vehicle or gal-1 (50×104 cells/well) were stimulated with the glutamic acid decarboxylase 65 peptide 206–220 (GAD65206–220, TYEIAPVFVLLEYVT, 100µg/ml), mouse islet lysate (freeze-thaw, 50µg/ml), insulin (100µg/ml) or OVA (100µg/ml) in 96-well ELISPOT plates coated with anti-IFN-γ, -IL-4, -IL-10 or -IL-17 mAb (BD-Biosciences). ELISPOT plates were cultured for 36 h followed by incubation with biotin-IFN-γ, biotin-IL-4, biotin-IL-10 or biotin-IL-17 mAb, streptavidin-peroxidase and 3-amino-9-ethylcarbazole. The spots were counted with an ImmunoSpot™ counter (Cellular Technology Ltd.).

Adoptive transfer model of T1D

For evaluation of the diabetogenic capability of in vitro-polarized (polyclonal) NOD Th1 and Tc1 lymphocytes, 2×106 Th1 and 106 Tc1 cells were adoptively transferred (i.v.) into young adult (5–8 wk old) female NODSCID mice. For evaluation of β-cell-specific Treg, female NODSCID mice were left untreated or injected i.v. with CD4 T-cells (5×105 or 5×106 T-cells / mouse) selected negatively with CD4 T-cell enrichment columns (R&D) from the spleens and PLN of NOD female mice that had been treated with gal-1 or vehicle from the 5th to the 15th wk of age. Twenty four h later, the NODSCID mice were challenged i.v. with 20×106 splenocytes from overtly diabetic NOD mice to trigger T1D (32,33). Diabetes was diagnosed in the NODSCID mice when glycemia reached ≥ 300 mg/dl in 2 consecutive readings.

MHC class-II tetramer staining

For tetramer formation, biotinylated I-Ag7-BDC-13 (AAVRPLWVRMEAA) and control I-Ag7-CLIP (PVSQMRMATPLLMRP) complexes were incubated with PE-streptavidin (Molecular Probes) for 1h, at 4°C, at a 4:1 M MHC:steptavidin ratio (34). Single cell suspensions of PLN cells were incubated with the PE-tetramers followed by FITC-CD4, CyC-CD8, CyC-B220 and alexa 647-CD3 (Molecular Probes) mAb plus 7AAD (BD-PharMingen), the latter to exclude dead cells. The binding of the PE-tretramers to PLN CD4+ T-cells (CD3+ CD4+ CD8 B220 7ADD cells) was assessed by 4-color FACS analysis.

Generation and isolation of NOD T-cell subsets

CD4+ or CD8+ T-cells were isolated from spleen of young (5 wk old) non-diabetic NOD mice by magnetic sorting (Dynal®). T-cells were incubated (0.5×106 cells/ml, 24-well plates) with medium containing artificial APC (Dynabeads® mouse CD3/CD28 T-cell expander, at 1:1 bead cell ratio) plus IL-2 (10U/ml, R&D). To induce polarization of CD4 T cells, cultures were supplemented with the following reagents: i) for Th1-polarization, IFN-γ (20ng/ml, PrepoTech), IL-12p70 (10ng/ml, R&D) plus IL-4 mAb (10µg/ml, 11B11); ii) for Th2-bias, IL-4 (1000 U/ml, PrepoTech) plus IFN-γ mAb (10µg/ml, XMGL2) and iii) for 9 Th17-polarization, IL-6 (20ng/ml, R&D) plus IL-4 and IFN-γ mAb. Generation of CD8 T-cells secreting IFN-γ was performed by incubation of CD8 T-cells with artificial APC and IL-2 (10 U/ml). After 5 days of culture, T-cells were stimulated with PMA (50ng/ml) and ionomycin (750ng/ml) in the presence of brefeldin A (10µg/ml) for 5h at 37°C, and the cytokine content analyzed by FACS. Freshly-isolated CD4+ CD25+ CD127−/lo regulatory T-cells (Treg) were obtained by FACS-sorting of splenocytes from young NOD mice. Expression of intra-nuclear FoxP3 was confirmed by immuno-labeling and FACS analysis of an aliquot of cells obtained from the sorted Treg. Freshly-isolated Treg were activated in vitro with artificial APC plus IL-2 (1000U/ml), as previously described (35).

In vitro assay of T-cell apoptosis

T-cells were incubated with increasing concentrations of soluble gal-1 (0.8–28 µM) in RPMI1640 medium supplemented with 1% FCS and 1.2mM DTT, for 4h at 37°C. The assay was stopped by addition of β-lactose (0.1M final concentration). Apoptotic cell death was assessed by labeling with the annexin-V-PE apoptosis detection kit (BD-PharMingen) followed by FACS analysis. As controls, the same assays were conducted in the presence of the gal-1 inhibitor β lactose (30mM).

Assays of T-cell proliferation

The ability of gal-1 to bias differentiation of T-cells was studied using splenic T-cells purified with T-cell enrichment columns (R&D) from young NOD mice. T-cells were cultured in complete medium (with 1.2 mM DTT) containing artificial APC (Dynabeads®, at 1:1 bead cell ratio, 0.5×106 T-cells/ml, 24 well plates), IL-2 (10U/ml) and in the absence or with increasing concentrations of soluble gal-1. As control, similar assays were conducted in the presence of the gal-1 competitor β lactose (30 mM). For analysis of Ag-specific T-cell proliferation ex vivo, spleen cells from NOD mice untreated or injected with vehicle or gal-1 were cultured for 3 days in complete medium in 96-well plates (2.5×105 cells/well) alone or with GAD65206–220 (100µg/ml). One µCi/well of [3H]TdR was added 18 h before harvesting the culture. Cell proliferation was assessed based on the uptake of [3H]TdR measured using a β counter. The levels of IFN-γ, IL-4, IL-10, IL-17 and TGF-β1 were evaluated in culture supernatants by ELISA.

Statistical analysis

Results are expressed as means ± SD. Comparisons between means were performed by ANOVA, followed by the Student Newman Keuls test. Comparison between two means was performed by Student “t” test. Incidence of T1D between groups was compared by Kaplan-Meier analysis and the log-rank test. A “p” < 0.05 was considered significant.


Administration of soluble galectin-1 prevents T1D

In the absence of treatment, NOD mice develop peri-insulitis by ~5 wk of age and by ~8 wk, lymphocytes begin to invade the islets (20). Destruction of β-cells and hyperglycemia occurs between 13 and 15 wk and by 30 wk of age, ~80% of female NOD mice are overtly diabetic (20). Therefore, to test the capability of soluble gal-1 to prevent T1D, 5-wk-old female NOD mice were injected i.p. with soluble gal-1, vehicle (alone or supplemented with the irrelevant protein OVA) or left untreated. We used recombinant human gal-1, since the lectin is highly conserved through evolution and human gal-1 is functional in mice (12, 15,16,26,27). All mice that received gal-1 (from the 5th to 36th wk) remained normoglycemic during the 37 wk-follow up (n=10). Conversely, 81% of untreated mice (n=16) and 78% of control animals injected with vehicle alone (n=10) or with OVA (n=8, not shown) developed hyperglycemia (Fig. 1A). The preventive effect of gal-1-therapy on T1D was still significant (p<0.01) when administration of the lectin was discontinued after the 15th wk (n=8) (Fig. 1A). Euglycemic mice treated with gal-1 exhibited levels of glucose clearance similar to those of control age-matched normoglycemic NOD mice, assessed by glucose tolerance test performed in 5 mice per group, 1 wk after completing gal-1 therapy (Fig. 1B).

Figure 1
Gal-1 prevents T1D

Administration of gal-1 did not cause apparent toxicity in NOD mice. NOD mice injected with gal-1 did not exhibit an increase in mortality or morbidity compared to vehicle-treated animals. Likewise, therapy with gal-1 did not cause histopathological changes in exocrine or endocrine pancreas, parenchymal organs, peritoneum (the lectin was injected i.p.), thymus, spleen or lymph nodes and did not affect the count or composition of PBMC (not shown). The ability of gal-1 (injected i.p. at the dose and timing that prevented T1D) to cause generalized immunosuppression was determined by analyzing the B-cell response against the model Ag OVA and in a CH assay in response to the hapten TNCB. Gal-1-treated NOD mice developed titers of total IgG against OVA similar to those of control normoglycemic NOD mice injected with vehicle alone (Fig. 1C). In addition, NOD mice treated with gal-1 and skin-sensitized with TNCB responded to the challenge with TNCB to the same extent as control (vehicle-treated) normoglycemic NOD mice of similar age (Fig. 1D). Thus, administration of gal-1 prevents onset of T1D without causing major side effects.

Preventive therapy with galectin-1 modifies the composition of insulitis

We then investigated the mechanisms involved in the preventive effect of exogenous gal-1 on T1D by analyzing the severity and composition of the insulitis in pancreata of female NOD mice injected with soluble gal-1 or vehicle. Pancreatic islets from vehicle-treated mice that developed T1D during the follow up period of 37 wk (n=8 mice) exhibited abundant leukocyte infiltration within the islets, which correlated with substantial reduction/absence of insulin indicative of β-cell damage (Fig. 1E & 2A). By contrast, all islets examined from the gal-1-treated mice (n=10 animals) exhibited a normal insulin content at the end of the 37 wk of follow up, and 88 ± 9 % of islets were surrounded by leukocyte infiltrates that did not invade the islets (Fig.1E & 2A).

Figure 2
Therapy with gal-1 alters the cellular composition of insulitis

Since female NOD mice treated with gal-1 did not develop T1D despite the presence of peri-insulitis (Fig.1E & 2A), we investigated whether administration of gal-1 affects the leukocyte composition of the infiltrate that surrounds the islets. Gal-1-therapy decreased the number of F4/80+ macrophages and CD11c+ DCs infiltrating the islets (Fig. 2B). Administration of the lectin did not alter the CD4+/CD8+ T-cell ratio or the percentage of apoptotic (TUNEL+) CD3+ T-cells in the insulitis compared to controls (not shown). By contrast, the infiltrate surrounding the islets of the gal-1-treated mice contained a significantly reduced number of CD4+ and CD8+ T-cells secreting the type 1 cytokine IFN-γ (p<0.01) and an increased percentage of CD4+ T-cells with intracellular content of the Th2 cytokines IL-4, IL-5 and IL-10 (p<0.01) compared to the pancreatic infiltrates of vehicle-injected mice, overtly diabetic or not (Fig. 2B & C). Although the role of CD4+ T cells secreting IL-17 (Th-17) in T1D is still unknown, a recent study suggested that Th-17 cells might participate in the pathogenesis of the disease (25). However, under our experimental conditions, very few CD4+ T-cells containing IL-17 were detected in the islet infiltrates, with no differences in their percentages between groups (not shown). In addition, gal-1-therapy did not alter the number of CD4+ FoxP3+ Treg in the islet infiltrates (not shown). Together, our findings indicate that the preventive effect of gal-1 on T1D was associated with changes in the cellular composition of the insulitis, which switched from the pathogenic Th1 and T cytotoxic (Tc) 1-cell infiltrate present in untreated pre-diabetic/diabetic NOD mice into a Th2-like infiltrate that did not invade or damage the islets.

Galectin-1 shifts the balance of cytokines secreted by β-cell-specific T-cells

We next investigated the mechanisms by which administration of exogenous gal-1 down-regulates autoimmunity against β-cells in the NOD model. First, we determined the effect of gal-1 treatment on the frequency and pattern of cytokines of β-cell-reactive T-cells. Young (pre-diabetic) female NOD mice treated with gal-1 or vehicle (from the 5th to the 36th wk) were euthanized 1 wk after completing gal-1- therapy, and splenocytes were stimulated with GAD65206–220, insulin, islet lysate or OVA (irrelevant control) in cytokine ELISPOT assays. Administration of gal-1 reduced (p<0.01) the frequency of T-cells secreting IFN-γ in response to the β-cell-Ag compared to vehicle-treated controls (Fig. 3A). By contrast the amount of T-cells releasing IL-4 or IL-10 in response to GAD65206–220, insulin and islet lysate increased significantly (p<0.01) in mice injected with gal-1 (Fig. 3A). No differences were detected between groups in the low frequencies of islet cell-reactive Th17 cells assessed y ELISPOT (Fig. 3A). Similarly, PLN of mice treated with gal-1 (from the 5th to the 36th wk) contained lower percentages of CD4+ IFN-γ+ cells and higher numbers of CD4+ cells with intracellular IL-4 or IL-10 than those of vehicle-treated controls (Fig. 3B & C).

Figure 3
Administration of gal-1 biases the cytokine pattern of β-cell-specific T-cells

Together, our findings indicate that gal-1-therapy decreases the number of T-cells secreting IFN-γ and promotes the generation of T-lymphocytes that release IL-4 and IL-10 in response to islet cell-Ag. Next, we assessed in vivo the contribution of the T-cells secreting IL-4 and/or IL-10 to the gal-1-induced protection of T1D in our model, by treating young female NOD mice with gal-1 (from the 6th to the 24th wk) in combination with neutralizing IL-4 or IL-10 mAb, or purified rat IgG (from the 14th to the 20th wk). Blockade of IL-10 reduced significantly (p < 0.01) the preventive effect of gal-1 on T1D, whereas administration of neutralizing IL-4 mAb or control rat IgG did not (Fig. 3D) (n=7 mice per group). Thus, the preventive effect of gal-1 on T1D was associated to down-regulation of the Th1 response and generation of IL-10-secreting T-cells specific for β-cell-Ag.

Galectin-1 causes apoptosis of pathogenic T-cell subsets but spares Th2 and Treg in NOD mice

We investigated whether the cytokine shift promoted by gal-1 therapy in our model was caused by gal-1-mediated T-cell polarization or differential susceptibility of T-cell subsets to gal-1-mediated apoptosis. We first tested if gal-1 polarizes NOD T-cell differentiation at concentrations that do not trigger apoptosis (<7µM). Naïve T-cells from NOD mice were stimulated with artificial APC alone or with exogenous soluble gal-1. We used artificial APC to prevent the activation of natural APC induced by gal-1 (27,28). Addition of gal-1 did not affect the levels of IFN-γ, IL-4, IL-17 or TGF-β1 released by T-cells and induced a modest increase of IL-10 that was not accompanied by augment in the percentage of CD4+CD25+FoxP3+ Treg (not shown).

Next, we assessed the ability of gal-1 to bind and trigger apoptosis of different subsets of T-cells differentiated in vitro or isolated from spleens of NOD mice. Polyclonal CD4+ T-cells (CD62Lhi CD44lo naïve, and in vitro-polarized Th1, Th2 and Th17 cells), CD8+ T lymphocytes (CD62Lhi CD44lo naïve and in vitro-polarized Tc1 cells), and CD4+CD25+FoxP3+ Treg (freshly-isolated or in vitro-activated) from NOD mice (Fig. 4A) were exposed to different concentrations of biotin-gal-1 (6, 3 and 1.5 µM, 45min, 37°C), followed by labeling with PE-streptavidin and analysis by FACS. Biotin-gal-1 did not bind naïve T-cells (CD4 or CD8) or Th2 cells, and attached weakly to freshly-isolated CD4+CD25+FoxP3+ T-cells (4 independent experiments) (Fig. 4B). By contrast, biotin-gal-1 bound with high avidly to Th1, Th17, Tc1 and in vitro-activated CD4+CD25+FoxP3+ T-cells, and binding of the lectin decreased substantially or was inhibited by addition of the gal-1 competitor β lactose (Fig. 4B). In vitro, soluble gal-1 induced apoptosis (within 5h) of Th1 (72±9%), Th17 (62±9%), Tc1 (60±8%) cells and the T-cell line PhaR2.1 (93±3%, a 15 reliable target for gal-1-induced cell death) at concentrations of the lectin above 7µM, the Kd of the gal-1 homodimers (Fig. 4C). Apoptosis was drastically reduced by addition of β lactose, confirming that it was dependent on the galactose-specific binding of the lectin (Fig. 4D). By contrast, naïve CD4 or CD8 T-cells and Th2 cells were not targets of gal-1-induced cell death (Fig. 4C) (5). Interestingly, although CD4+ Treg (resting or activated) bound to biotin-gal-1 (Fig. 4B), they exhibited very low susceptibility to gal-1-induced apoptosis (<15% increase in cell death, Fig. 4C).

Figure 4
Selective apoptosis of pathogenic T-cell subsets from NOD mice by gal-1 in vitro

To evaluate the relevance of our findings in vivo, we studied the effect of gal-1-therapy on CFSE-labeled in vitro-polarized NOD Th1 and Tc1 cells adoptively transferred (i.v.) into NODSCID mice (2×106 Th1 + 106 Tc1 / mouse). The host NODSCID mice were then treated with vehicle or gal-1 the following 3 days, and 1 day later the traffic, proliferation and viability of the injected T-cells were analyzed by flow cytometry. Similar percentages of T-cells were detected in PLN, peripheral lymph nodes (cervical, inguinal, axilar, mesenteric) and spleen from mice treated with gal-1 or vehicle, indicating that gal-1 did not affect the traffic of the injected T-cells in our model. Four days after transfer, we were unable to detect T lymphocytes in the pancreas by immuno-fluorescence microscopy on tissue sections (not shown). The CFSE-labeled CD4+ Th1 and CD8+ Tc1 cells proliferated vigorously only in PLN, and both subsets were highly susceptible to gal-1-mediated apoptosis, assessed by labeling with annexin-V (Fig. 5A). These vitro-polarized Th1 and Tc1 cells were functionally diabetogenic in vivo and susceptible to gal-1-therapy, as demonstrated by the fact that 75% of the NODSCID mice (n=4) reconstituted with NOD Th1 and Tc1 cells developed T1D within 12 wk and onset of hyperglycemia was prevented by gal-1-therapy (n=6) (Fig. 5B). These results indicate that the effect of gal-1 in T1D is associated to its ability to induce apoptosis of pathogenic T-cell subpopulations without promoting cell death in CD4 Treg and Th2 cells.

Figure 5
Gal-1-mediated apoptosis of diabetogenic T-cell subsets in vivo

Deletion of β-cell-specific T-cells by administration of galectin-1

Since gal-1 promotes apoptosis of mature T-cells (5), we investigated in the NOD model in vivo whether administration of gal-1 results in deletion of T-cell clones that recognize β-cell-Ag. We used the IAg7-BDC 13 tetramer that detects β-cell-reactive CD4+ T-cells in NOD mice (34). As controls, we used IAg7 tetramers with the CLIP peptide (IAg7-CLIP). Five wk-old female NOD mice were treated for 10 wk with gal-1 (100µg, 3 times a week, i.p.) or vehicle, euthanized along with control age-matched BALB/c mice, and single cell suspensions from PLN were labeled with PE-tetramers in combination with a cocktail of mAb and 7AAD (the latter to exclude dead cells). As expected, the I-Ag7-BDC-13 tetramer labeled a small population of CD4+ T-cells (Fig. 6A) from PLN of NOD mice treated with vehicle. All samples labeled with control IAg7-CLIP and BALB/c cells incubated with the IAg7-BDC-13 tetramer resulted only in background levels of staining (Fig. 6A). Administration of gal-1 was associated with significant reduction in the percentage of CD4+ T cells labeled by IAg7-BDC-13 in PLN (from 0.52±16 to 0.17±5 %, p < 0.01, values pooled from 4 independent experiments with 3 mice per group) (Fig. 6A). This result was indicative of peripheral deletion of β-cell-reactive CD4+ T cells in the gal-1-treated animals, and correlated directly with the higher percentages of apoptotic (TUNEL+) T-cells found in the PLN when compared with those of vehicle-treated mice (Fig. 6B).

Figure 6
Gal-1 promotes deletion of β-cell-specific T-cells

Galectin-1 and generation of β-cell-specific Treg

Our results suggest that the preventive effect of gal-1 in T1D depends on down-regulation of Th1 immunity and/or expansion of IL-10-secreting CD4+ T-cells, the latter compatible with generation of CD4+ Treg. Thus, we assessed the relative contribution of these potential β-cell-specific CD4+ Treg in the preventive effect of gal-1-therapy in the absence of the down-regulation of the Th1 response caused by the lectin. We addressed this point using a lymphocyte adoptive transfer model of T1D, where young adult NODSCID mice were challenged with 20×106 splenocytes from overtly diabetic NOD mice (32,33). The following day, the NODSCID mice were injected i.v. (or not, control) with increasing numbers of CD4+ T-cells from spleen and PLN of female NOD mice pre-treated (from the 5th to 15th wk of age) with gal-1 or vehicle (control, normoglycemic) (Fig. 6C). Transference of CD4+ T-cells from NOD mice treated with gal-1 did not suppress/delay onset of T1D in reconstituted NODSCID mice (Fig. 6D). These results suggest that, in the absence of the down-regulation of the Th1 response against β-cells caused by the lectin, generation of potential tissue-specific CD4+ Treg by gal-1-therapy is not sufficient to prevent onset of T1D in our model.

Therapeutic effect of galectin-1 on ongoing T1D

Next, we investigated the efficacy of gal-1 therapy in sub-clinical stages of T1D by administering the lectin to normoglycemic NOD mice of 16 wk of age (100µg, i.p., 3 times a week), a time when extensive insulitis is already established but still associated to normal metabolic control of glycemia. By the end of the 15 wk-follow up (31st wk of age), gal-1-therapy prevented onset of hyperglycemia in 9 out of the 10 female NOD mice (p<0.01) whereas 6 out of 10 vehicle-injected animals became diabetic (Fig. 7A). At the end of the experiment (31st wk), those mice treated with gal-1 exhibited levels of blood glucose clearance similar to those of control normoglycemic NOD mice of similar age (Fig. 7B), and 95±4 % of the pancreatic islets exhibited a perinsulitis (Fig. 7C) of similar characteristics to that found in NOD mice that received preventive therapy with gal-1 (not shown).

Figure 7
Gal-1-therapy in sub-clinical T1D

We then tested if the gal-1-therapy is effective in ongoing T1D. Diabetic female NOD mice (≥ 10 consecutive days of hyperglycemia) were treated for 12 wk with gal-1 or vehicle alone (100µg, 3 times a week, i.p.). All mice injected with vehicle remained hyperglycemic (n=6). By contrast 60% of gal-1-treated mice (n=10) became normoglycemic and independent from exogenous insulin at the end of the 13 wk of follow up (Fig. 8A), with normal levels of blood glucose clearance (Fig. 8B). We investigated in those mice that did not reverse hyperglycemia following gal-1-therapy if the problem relied on a failure of the lectin to control β-cell autoimmunity or the incapacity of the islets to regenerate β-cells. To compare the effect of gal-1 on β-cell autoimmunity in cured vs. non-cured mice, we analyzed proliferation and pattern of cytokines of splenic T-cells in response to GAD65206–220 in vitro 1 wk after completing gal-1 therapy, to prevent a potential carryover effect of the lectin. As expected, diabetic NOD mice treated with vehicle exhibited a strong proliferative T-cell response with predominant secretion of IFN-γ (Fig. 8C & D). By 18 contrast, both subgroups of gal-1-treated mice (with T1D remission and those that remained hyperglycemic) showed a pronounced decreased in T-cell proliferation and secretion of IFN-γ when stimulated with GAD65206–220 (Fig. 8C & D). This observation suggests that gal-1-therapy successfully controlled β-cell autoimmunity in all cases and that a failure of the islets to recover their ability to secrete enough insulin and/or regenerate β-cells led to metabolic diabetes in 40% of the NOD mice treated with gal-1. Indeed, islet cells with content of insulin and expressing the replication cell marker Ki-67 (5±2% of the insulin+ cells) were detected only in those mice that reversed T1D after gal-1-therapy (Fig. 8E). These findings were accompanied by a moderate insulitis composed mostly of CD4+ T-cells with intracellular IL-4 with no increase in the percentage of CD4+FoxP3+ Treg (Fig. 8E & F). Together, these results indicate that gal-1-therapy prevents onset of overt diabetes at sub-clinical stages of the disease and reverts ongoing β-cell autoimmunity in overtly diabetic NOD mice, that may become normoglycemic depending likely on the capability of the remaining β cells to recuperate their function and/or to recover the β-cell mass.

Figure 8
Effect of gal-1 in ongoing T1D


Effective therapy of T1D requires elimination and/or regulation of the T-cell clones that initiate and perpetuate the damage of the pancreatic β-cells. In this study, we demonstrated that the regulatory effects of gal-1 on the immune system can be employed to prevent diabetes in NOD mice and, importantly, to reverse ongoing β-cell autoimmunity at later stages of the disease in sub-clinical and overt T1D.

Previous studies have shown that gal-1 down-regulates T-cell survival, activation and proliferation (36,37), suppress Th1-responses (14,17,18,26,27) and triggers apoptosis of thymocytes and activated T-cells in humans (5,6,38) and mice (26,27). Gal-1 is expressed by Treg (39) and immune-privileged sites (4042), is employed as a mechanism of immunoescape by neoplasms (43) and plays an important role in feto-maternal tolerance (44). Due to its regulatory effects on T cells, gal-1 has been used to treat T-cell-mediated diseases in murine models (1218,26). Although the mechanisms of the pleiotropic effects of gal-1 have not been elucidated, there is evidence that the homodimeric (bivalent) form of the lectin is critical to crosslink its ligands on the T-cell surface (9) and to transduce the death signal (5). T-cell apoptosis triggered by gal-1 is caspase-independent and involves rapid nuclear translocation of endonuclease G from mitochondria without release of cytochrome c (45). Gal-1 has numerous anti-inflammatory effects, some of them at concentrations below its apoptotic threshold, including induction of IL-10 release (46), down-regulation of secretion of TNF-α and IFN-γ (15,47), and inhibition of adhesion to endothelium (48) and trans-endothelial migration of leukocytes (49,50).

We showed here that administration of soluble gal-1 prevents onset of T1D in female NOD mice. Interestingly, histopathologic examination of pancreata from mice treated with gal-1 showed a similar incidence of insulitis, scored simply as the percentage of islets with associated leukocytes, as the vehicle-treated group. However, the pancreatic infiltrates of gal-1-treated mice did not invade the islets and did not damage the β-cells. The non-pathogenic nature of the insulitis of the gal-1-treated mice was due likely to the qualitative difference in its cellular composition. Therapy with gal-1 shifted the balance of the ratio between Th1- and Th2-like-cells in the islet infiltrate and PLN, increasing the percentage of CD4+ T-cells with IL-4, IL-5 or IL-10 and substantially reducing the number of IFN-γ-secreting T-cells. This Th2-like bias in the T-cell response was specific to β-cell-Ag, as demonstrated in ELISPOT assays and agrees with previous studies showing that pancreatic infiltrates with inverted Th1/Th2 cell ratio cause a non-destructive peri-insulitis in NOD mice (51,52). Although the critical factors that trigger leukocyte mobilization into the islets (insulitis) are unknown, the ability of gal-1 to reduce the number of IFN-γ-secreting T-cells around the islets and/or to inhibit migration of T-cells (and possibly DC and macrophages) through the extracellular matrix (47,50) could account for the non-invasive nature of the infiltrates in gal-1-treated mice.

The cytokine-shift in the T-cell response against β-cell-Ag in gal-1-treated mice could be ascribed to the ability of the lectin to drive T-cell polarization at concentrations below its apoptotic-threshold and/or to trigger cell death of specific substes of effector T-cells in NOD mice. We showed that, at concentrations that do not induce T-cell apoptosis, addition of gal-1 did not alter significantly polarization of T-cells. However, in our system, gal-1 bound and triggered rapid apoptosis of effector Th1, Th17 and Tc1 cells, but spared Th2 cells and Treg, both subsets that have been proved to protect against development of T1D in NOD mice (35,5356). Our findings extend the results of a recent study showing that differential glycosylation of Th1, Th2 and Th17 cells regulates their resistance to gal-1-induced cell death. The susceptibility of Th1 and Th17 cells to gal-1-mediated cell death correlated directly with their high levels of core-2-O-glycan epitopes generated by the enzyme core 2 β-1,6-N-acetyl-glucosaminyltransferase on cell surface glycoproteins, which are ligands for gal-1 (18). In contrast, addition of α2,6-linked sialic acid to N-glycans on Th2 cells protects these cells from gal-1-induced cell death (18). Interestingly, although we detected that gal-1 binds to resting and (with more avidity) activated CD4+CD25+FoxP3+ T-cells of NOD mice, these cells were resistant to gal-1-mediated apoptosis. This finding suggests that CD4+CD25+ Treg must have a mechanism of protection from gal-1-mediated cellular suicide since they constitutively express gal-1 (39).

In T1D, presentation of β-cell-Ag and activation of diabetogenic T-cells takes place initially in PLN (57). Thus, following therapy with gal-1, apoptosis of β-cell-reactive T-cells could occur in the PLN or when the activated T-cells infiltrate the pancreas. We found that gal-1-therapy increased the percentage of apoptotic T-cells in PLN, a finding that correlated with reduction in the percentage of β-cell-reactive CD4+ T-cells specific for the IAg7-BDC-13 complex. Although we were unable to detect an increased number of apoptotic T-cells in the islet infiltrates, we can not completely rule out the possibility that gal-1-therapy promotes T-cell death locally within the pancreas, since it is well established that apoptotic cells are removed rapidly from peripheral tissues by phagocytes (58).

There is evidence that administration of in vitro-expanded CD4+ FoxP3+ β-cell-specific Treg suppresses T1D in NOD mice (35,55,56) and that transfer of CD4+ T-cells from gal-1-treated mice prevents onset of autoimmune uveitis in untreated recipients (17), the latter suggesting that gal-1-therapy promotes generation/expansion of tissue-specific Treg. However, in our system, transfer of CD4+ T-cells from gal-1- treated mice did not prevent/delay onset of hyperglycemia in a transfer model of T1D. This finding suggests that, in the absence of deletion and Th2-bias of β-cell-specific T cells and probably other gal-1-mediated anti-inflammatory effects, generation of CD4+ Treg is not the main mechanism by which gal-1 prevents T1D.

Gal-1-therapy was also effective in sub-clinical stages of T1D in NOD mice. These results have clinical relevance, since prediction of early pre-diabetic stages or Ab-positive high-risk first-degree relatives has become more precise in humans (2). Once the β-cell-reactive T-cells become activated, there is often a quite long asymptomatic period of time until development of T1D, known as “honeymoon period”, when therapy with the lectin could be beneficial.

One of the most important findings of this study is that gal-1-therapy was capable of restraining T-cell autoimmunity against β-cells even in NOD mice with declared T1D. This is of clinical importance, since most patients are diagnosed at late stages of the disease when they are overtly diabetic. Besides, remission of declared β-cell autoimmunity at a time early enough to preserve the remaining β-cell mass/precursors within the islets is still the best therapeutic approach for patients with T1D. The results indicate that once the T-cell-mediated aggression against the β-cells was abrogated by administration of gal-1, the remaining islets recuperate their capacity to maintain normoglycemia in a considerable number of the lectin-treated animals. Gal-1-therapy down-regulated β-cell autoimmunity even in those mice that remained hyperglycemic, demonstrating that the failure to restore normoglycemia was likely due to the incapacity of the β-cells to regain their function and/or recuperate the β-cell mass, leading to metabolic diabetes. This may be ascribed to the absence of viable β-cell precursors at the time of initiation of the treatment.

Since gal-1 is an endogenous lectin, it is expected to be non-toxic and non-immunogenic when injected repeatedly. In fact, administration of the lectin did not cause major side effects in NOD mice. More importantly, unlike several immunosuppressive drugs used to controls recurrence of T1D and rejection of islet cell allografts, gal-1 did not seem to be toxic for the β-cells in the mouse. The fact that gal-1 does not trigger apoptosis0 of Th2 cells could explain why, in our model, exogenous gal-1 did not affect the systemic B-cell response against a model Ag. Interestingly, although gal-1-therapy prevented T-cell autoimmunity against β-cells, it did not affect the skin CH response elicited by haptens. Since cutaneous CH is susceptible to down-modulation by local injection of cells expressing gal-1 (27), our findings indicate that, at the dose and route employed, the concentration of exogenous gal-1 in periphery did not reach enough levels to induce generalized immunosuppression.

Gal-1 is a soluble protein with no posttranslational modifications, therefore large batches of the lectin can be produced in bacterial expression systems for therapeutic applications. However, since the subunits of the gal-1 homodimer are not covalently linked and the affinity for each other is rather low, the in vivo efficacy of gal-1 still depends on administration of relatively large amounts of the lectin. To overcome this problem, Battig et al. (59) have generated by genetic engineering covalently linked gal-1 homodimers, 10-fold more effective than the wild type molecule, that could be employed therapeutically at much lower doses. To our knowledge, this is the first study on the use of a soluble lectin to treat T1D. Optimization of variables for therapy with gal-1, including dose and timing of administration, the use of genetically improved variants of gal-1, and its combination with other Th1 immune-regulatory galectins like gal-9 (60), could open new possibilities for treatment of T1D.


We thank Dr. Penelope Morel for the GAD65206–220 peptide and Dr. Hongmei Shen and Derek Donaldson for their assistance in cell sorting by flow cytometry

Supported by grants from the NIH: R01 HL077545 and R01 HL075512 (A.E.M), R33 DK63499 (M.T.), the T.E. Starzl Transplantation Institute Young Investigator Award (M.J.P.) and a grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) (K.W.W.)..

Abbreviations used in this manuscript

contact hypersensitivity
dendritic cells
glutamic acid decarboxylase 65 peptide 206–220
pancreatic lymph nodes
type 1 diabetes
T cytotoxic
regulatory T-cells



The authors have not financial conflict of interest.

This is an author-produced version of a manuscript accepted for publication in The Journal of Immunology (The JI). The American Association of Immunologists, Inc. (AAI), publisher of The JI, holds the copyright to this manuscript. This version of the manuscript has not yet been copyedited or subjected to editorial proofreading by The JI; hence, it may differ from the final version published in The JI (online and in print). AAI (The JI) is not liable for errors or omissions in this author-produced version of the manuscript or in any version derived from it by the U.S. National Institutes of Health or any other third party. The final, citable version of record can be found at


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