CD40 ligand is primarily expressed on activated CD4+ T lymphocytes but is also found in a soluble form. While CD40L was originally described on T lymphocytes, its expression has since been found on a wide variety of cells, including platelets, mast cells, macrophages, basophils, NK cells, B lymphocytes, as well as non-haematopoietic cells (smooth muscle cells, endothelial cells, and epithelial cells).
In the macrophage, the primary signal for activation is IFN-γ from Th1 type CD4T cells. The secondary signal is CD40L on the T cell, which binds CD40 on the macrophage cell surface. As a result, the macrophage expresses more CD40 and TNF receptors on its surface, which helps increase the level of activation. The activated macrophage can then destroy phagocytosed bacteria and produce more cytokines.
T cell-dependent B cell activation, showing a TH2-cell (left), B cell (right), and several interaction molecules, the TH2-cell expressing CD40L.
B cells can present antigens to a specialized group of helper T cells called TFH cells. If an activated TFH cell recognizes the peptide presented by the B cell, the CD40L on the T cell binds to the B cell's CD40 receptor, causing B cell activation. The T cell also produces IL-4, which directly influences B cells. As a result of this stimulation, the B cell can undergo rapid cellular division to form a germinal center where antibodyisotype switching and affinity maturation occurs, as well as their differentiation to plasma cells and memory B cells. The end-result is a B cell that is able to mass-produce specific antibodies against an antigenic target. Early evidence for these effects were that in CD40 or CD154 deficient mice, there is little class switching or germinal centre formation, and immune responses are severely inhibited.
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