We studied the influence of glucocorticoids on the sensitization phase as well as on the cytolytic effector phase of an in vitro lymphocyte-mediated immune reaction. Lymphocytes obtained from the spleens or lymph nodes of unimmunized inbred rats were sensitized against foreign rat or mouse embryonic fibroblasts in cell culture. The capacity of the sensitized lymphocytes to produce a cytolytic effect was tested by transferring them to target fibroblast cultures. Injury to target fibroblasts was measured by release of radioactive 51Cr from previously labeled fibroblasts or by direct count of viable fibroblasts after incubation with sensitized lymphocytes. Various concentrations of water-soluble hydrocortisone or prednisolone were added to cell cultures during the 5 day sensitization phase and/or during the subsequent cytolytic effector phase and the influence of these hormones on the number and cytolytic capacity of the lymphocytes was measured.

During the sensitization phase, the presence of glucocorticoid hormones, at concentrations of about 1 µg/ml, led to a profound decrease in the total number of recoverable lymphocytes. However, the per cent of large transformed lymphocytes was much greater in these treated cultures. The antigen-specific cytolytic capacity per cell of the glucocorticoid-treated lymphocytes, after the hormone was removed, was several times greater than that of lymphocytes sensitized in the absence of added hormones.

Glucocorticoids influenced the effector phase of the reaction by inhibiting lymphocyte-mediated injury to target fibroblasts. The hormones, at concentrations of about 1 µg/ml, inhibited the cytolytic effect by about 50% without reducing the viability of the sensitized lymphocytes. Dose-dependent toxicity to lymphocytes and increasing inhibition of cytolytic effect appeared at higher concentrations of hormones.

Thus, hydrocortisone and prednisolone, at concentrations of about 1 µg/ml, did not suppress the induction of sensitization, a process which they seem to facilitate in vitro. However, similar concentrations of these hormones appear to inhibit the cytolytic effector mechanism of sensitized lymphocytes. These findings may be relevant to the use of glucocorticoids as immunosuppressive agents in vivo.

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