Persistent infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV) causes epithelial hyperplasia that can progress to cancer and is thought to depend on immunosuppressive mechanisms that prevent viral clearance by the host. IL-17 is a cytokine with diverse functions in host defense and in the pathology of autoimmune disorders, chronic inflammatory diseases, and cancer. We analyzed biopsies from patients with HPV-associated cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 2/3 and murine skin displaying HPV16 E7 protein-induced epithelial hyperplasia, which closely models hyperplasia in chronic HPV lesions. Expression of IL-17 and IL-23, a major inducer of IL-17, was elevated in both human HPV-infected and murine E7-expressing lesions. Using a skin-grafting model, we demonstrated that IL-17 in HPV16 E7 transgenic skin grafts inhibited effective host immune responses against the graft. IL-17 was produced by CD3(+) T cells, predominantly CD4(+) T cells in human, and CD4(+) and γδ T cells in mouse hyperplastic lesions. IL-23 and IL-1β, but not IL-18, induced IL-17 production in E7 transgenic skin. Together, these findings demonstrate an immunosuppressive role for IL-17 in HPV-associated epithelial hyperplasia and suggest that blocking IL-17 in persistent viral infection may promote antiviral immunity and prevent progression to cancer.
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