The interaction between follicular T helper cells (TFH) and B cells in the lymph nodes and spleen has a major impact on the development of antigen-specific B cell responses during infection or vaccination. Recent studies described a functional equivalent of these cells among circulating CD4 T cells, referred to as peripheral TFH cells. Here, we characterize the phenotype and in vitro B cell helper activity of peripheral TFH populations, as well as the effect of HIV infection on these populations. In co-culture experiments we confirmed CXCR5+ cells from HIV-uninfected donors provide help to B cells and more specifically, we identified a CCR7highCXCR5highCCR6highPD-1high CD4 T cell population that secretes IL-21 and enhances isotype-switched immunoglobulin production. This population is significantly decreased in treatment-naïve, HIV-infected individuals and can be recovered after anti-retroviral therapy. We found impaired immunoglobulin production in co-cultures from HIV-infected individuals and found no correlation between the frequency of peripheral TFH cells and memory B cells, or with neutralization activity in untreated HIV infection in our cohort. Furthermore, we found that within the peripheral TFH population, the expression level of TFH-associated genes more closely resembles a memory, non-TFH population, as opposed to a TFH population. Overall, our data identify a heterogeneous population of circulating CD4 T cells that provides in vitro help to B cells, and challenges the origin of these cells as memory TFH cells.
Follicular T helper cells (TFH) interact with B cells within germinal centers of lymphoid tissue to promote the survival, isotype switching and generation of high affinity memory B cells and plasma cells. Recently, a population of circulating CD4 T cells that shares phenotypic and functional characteristics with TFH cells, named peripheral TFH cells, has been identified. The relationship between peripheral TFH cells in the blood and TFH cells within the lymphoid tissue remains unclear, and whether or not peripheral TFH cells can provide insight into T cell and B cell dynamics within lymphoid tissue during infection or vaccination is not understood. Here we characterize peripheral TFH cells and show that unlike TFH cells, peripheral TFH cells secrete a diverse array of cytokines and decrease, rather than increase, during chronic HIV infection. Furthermore, we did not observe a relationship between peripheral TFH cells and memory B cells, or with the production of neutralizing antibodies to HIV. Overall, our data indicate that while peripheral TFH cells share some characteristics with TFH cells, they may not represent a good surrogate to study T cell and B cell dynamics within lymphoid tissue.