Plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) are a rare type of highly versatile immune cells that besides their specialized function of massive type I interferon (IFN-I) production are able to exert cytotoxic effector functions. However, diversification upon toll like receptor (TLR)-induced activation leads to highly heterogeneous responses that have not been fully characterized yet. Using droplet-based microfluidics, we showed that upon TLR7/8 and TLR9-induced single-cell activation only 1-3% secretes IFNα, and only small fractions upregulate cytotoxicity markers. Interestingly, this 1-3% of early IFN-producing pDCs, also known as first responders, express high levels of programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) and TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL), which makes these hybrid cells similar to earlier described IFN-I producing killer pDCs (IKpDCs). IFN-I priming increases the numbers of IFNα producing cells up to 40%, but does not significantly upregulate the cytotoxicity markers. Besides, these so-called second responders do not show a cytotoxic phenotype as potent as observed for the first responders. Overall, our results indicate that the first responders are the key drivers orchestrating population wide IFN-I responses and possess high cytotoxic potential.
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