A potent inhibitor of mitogen-stimulated T cell proliferation exists in the saliva of several species of hard ticks, including the
Lyme disease vector tick, Ixodes scapularis. Our characterization of this phenomenon has led to the identification of a possible mechanism for the T cell inhibitory activity of I. scapularis saliva. The T cell inhibitor can overcome stimulation of mouse spleen cells with anti-CD3 mAb; however, a direct and avid interaction with T cells does not appear to be necessary. Tick saliva inhibits a mouse IL-2 capture ELISA, suggesting that a soluble IL-2 binding factor is present in the saliva. This hypothesis was verified by using a direct binding assay in which plate-immobilized tick saliva was shown to bind both mouse and human IL-2. Elimination of the IL-2 binding capacity of saliva in the in vitro assays by trypsin digestion demonstrated that the IL-2 binding factor is a protein. These experiments comprise the first demonstration of the existence of such a secreted IL-2 binding protein from any parasite or pathogen. This arthropod salivary IL-2 binding capacity provides a simple mechanism for the suppression of T cell proliferation as well as for the activity of other immune effector cells that are responsive to IL-2 stimulation. Relevance of the tick T cell inhibitory activity to the human immune system is demonstrated by the ability of tick saliva to inhibit proliferation of human T cells and CTLL-2 cells grown in the presence of human IL-2.