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CD137 (4-1BB) is a surface protein initially discovered to mark activated T lymphocytes. However, its broader expression pattern also encompasses activated NK cells, B cells and myeloid cells, including mature dendritic cells. In this study, we have immunostained for CD137 on paraffin-embedded lymphoid tissues including tonsils, lymph nodes, ectopic tertiary lymphoid tissue in Hashimoto thyroiditis and cancer. Surprisingly, immunostaining mainly decorated intrafollicular lymphocytes in the tissues analyzed, with only scattered staining in interfollicular areas. Moreover, pathologic lymphoid follicles in follicular lymphoma and tertiary lymphoid tissue associated with non-small cell lung cancer showed a similar pattern of immunostaining. Multispectral fluorescence cytometry demonstrated that CD137 expression was restricted to CD4+ CXCR5+ follicular T helper lymphocytes (TFH cells) in tonsils and lymph nodes. Short-term culture of lymph node cell suspensions in the presence of either an agonistic anti-CD137 monoclonal antibody (mAb) or CD137-ligand stimulated the functional upregulation of TFH cells in 3 out of 6 cases, as indicated by CD40L surface expression and cytokine production. As a consequence, immunostimulatory monoclonal antibodies targeting CD137 (such as urelumab and PF-05082566) should be expected to primarily act on this lymphocyte subset, thus modifying ongoing humoral immune responses in patients with autoimmune disease and cancer.

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Division of Gene Therapy and Hepatology; Centre for Applied Medical Research ; Pamplona, Spain ; Oncology Department; University Clinic of Navarra ; Pamplona, Spain.