Transition to exhaustion: clues for cancer immunotherapy

Research on immune cells “exhausted” by chronic viral infection provides clues on how to refine cancer immunotherapy. The results were published Tuesday, Dec. 3 in Immunity. Scientists at Emory Vaccine Center, led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, have learned about exhausted CD8 T cells, based on studying mice with chronic viral infections. In the presence of persistent virus or cancer, CD8 T cells lose much of their ability to fight disease, and display inhibitory checkpoint proteins Read more

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Immunology

Transition to exhaustion: clues for cancer immunotherapy

Research on immune cells “exhausted” by chronic viral infection provides clues on how to refine cancer immunotherapy. The results were published Tuesday, Dec. 3 in Immunity.

Scientists at Emory Vaccine Center, led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, have learned about exhausted CD8 T cells, based on studying mice with chronic viral infections. In the presence of persistent virus or cancer, CD8 T cells lose much of their ability to fight disease, and display inhibitory checkpoint proteins such as PD-1 on their surfaces. PD-1 is targeted by cancer immunotherapy drugs, such as pembrolizumab and nivolumab, which allow CD8 T cells to regain their ability to attack and kill infected cells and cancers.

Those drugs are now FDA-approved for several types of cancer, yet some types of tumors do not respond to them. Studying exhausted CD8 T cells can help us understand how to better draw the immune system into action against cancer or chronic infections.

In previous research, Ahmed’s lab found that exhausted cells are not all alike, and the diversity within the exhausted T cell pool could explain variability in responses to cancer immunotherapy drugs. Specifically, they observed that a population of “stem-like” cells proliferated in response to PD-1-blocking drugs, while a more differentiated population of exhausted cells stayed inactive. The stem-like cells are responsible for maintaining the exhausted T cell population, but cannot kill virus-infected or tumor cells on their own.

The current paper defines a transitional stage in between the stem-like and truly exhausted cells. The truly exhausted cells are marked by a molecule called CD101, and are unable to migrate to sites of infection and contain lower amounts of proteins needed to kill infected or tumor cells.

“The transitional cells are not completely exhausted,” says postdoctoral fellow Will Hudson, PhD, first author of the Immunity paper. “They are still capable of proliferating and performing their ‘killer cell’ functions. In our experiments, they contribute to viral control.”

The transitional cells, lacking CD101, could be a good marker for response to PD-1 blocking drugs, Hudson says. Enhancing the proliferation or survival of these cells, or preventing their transition to lasting exhaustion, may be a novel therapeutic strategy for cancer. Read more

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Drying up the HIV reservoir

Immunologists refer to the cells that harbor HIV, even while someone is getting effective antiretroviral drugs, as the “reservoir.” That term inspires a lot of waterway metaphors! Unfortunately, drying up the HIV reservoir is not as straightforward as building a dam across a stream.  But it is the goal, if we are talking about the still-elusive possibility of a HIV cure.

Maud Mavigner, Ann Chahroudi and colleagues at Yerkes recently published a paper in Journal of Virology on targeting the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway as a tactic. They were studying SIV-infected macaques, in the context of ongoing antiretroviral therapy.

The HIV reservoir is more difficult to visualize than a human-made aquatic reservoir

Wnt is one of those funky developmental signaling pathways that gets re-used over and over again, whether it’s in the early embryo,the brain or the intestine. Beta-catenin is a central protein in that pathway.

In this case, Wnt/beta-catenin regulates the balance between self-renewal and differentiation of memory T cells – important components of the HIV reservoir. Mavigner’s team used PRI-724, a molecule that blocks interaction between beta-catenin and another protein it needs to turn on genes. PRI-724 has also been investigated in the context of cancer clinical trials. Read more

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Hope Clinic part of push to optimize HIV vaccine components

Ten years ago, the results of the RV144 trial– conducted in Thailand with the help of the US Army — re-energized the HIV vaccine field, which had been down in the dumps. It was the first vaccine clinical trial to ever demonstrate any efficacy in preventing HIV. The Hope Clinic of Emory Vaccine Center has been involved in efforts to build on the RV144 trial’s promising results. These early-stage studies have been optimizing the best vaccine components and techniques for larger vaccine efficacy trials, some of which are now underway.

Nadine Rouphael, interim director of the Hope Clinic, was first author on a recent paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation, reporting a multi-center study from the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. HVTN is headquartered at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Our study shows that there are tools available to us now to improve on the immunogenicity seen in RV144, which may lead to better efficacy in future field trials,” Rouphael says. (See statement on the HVTN 105 study here.) Read more

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Immunologists identify T cell homing beacons for lungs

Scientists have identified a pair of molecules critical for T cells, part of the immune system, to travel to and populate the lungs. A potential application could be strengthening vaccines against respiratory pathogens such as influenza.

The findings were published online Thursday, September 26 in Journal of Experimental Medicine.

T cells in the lungs, courtesy of Alex Wein. Blue represents respiratory epithelium (EpCAM), while various T cells stain red, yellow or green.

Much research on immunity to influenza virus focuses on antibodies, infection- or vaccine-induced proteins in the blood that can smother viruses. But CD8 T cells, which survey other cells for signs of viral infection and kill infected cells, are an important arm of our defenses too. The epitopes – or bits of viral protein – they recognize generally do not change from year to year.

Researchers led by Jacob Kohlmeier, PhD, at Emory University School of Medicine wanted to learn more about what’s needed to get CD8 T cells into the lungs, since the lungs will often contain the first cells incoming virus will have a chance to infect. However, T cells don’t stick around in the lungs for extended amounts of time.

“The airways are a unique environment in the body,” says Alex Wein, a MD/PhD student who trained in Kohlmeier’s lab. “They’re high in oxygen but low in nutrients. Unlike other tissues, when T cells enter the airways, it’s a one-way trip and they have a half-life of a few weeks, so they must be continually repopulated.”

Wein, his fellow MD/PhD Sean McMaster, now at Boston Consulting Group, and Shiki Takamura at Kindai University are co-first authors of the paper. Kohlmeier is assistant professor of microbiology and immunology and part of the Emory-UGA Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance.

The researchers showed that two molecules, called CXCR6 and CXCL16, are needed for CD8 T cells to reach the airways in mice. CXCR6 is found on T cells and CXCL16 is produced by the epithelial cells lining the airways of the lungs. Read more

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Are immune-experienced mice better for sepsis research?

Why isn’t a laboratory mouse more like a human? There are several answers, beyond the differences in size and physiology between mice and humans, such as microbiome and immunological experience. Emory researchers led by Mandy Ford and Craig Coopersmith recently published a couple papers that aim to take those factors into account.

The goal is to make mouse immune systems and microbiomes more complex and more like those in humans, so the mice they can better model the deadly derangement of sepsis. So far, sepsis research in mice has been a poor predictor of clinical success. This aligns with work at the National Institutes of Health on “wildling” mice, which have microbes more like wild mice. (Lab Land likes noticing a trend that Emory researchers are part of.)

One Emory paper, in FASEB Journal, shows that mortality in a mouse model of sepsis varies according to the commercial facility where the mice came from. When the mice were allowed to live together and exchange microbes, mortality numbers evened out.

Another, published in JCI Insight, looks at mice that have more memory T cells than naïve mice, since adult humans have a high proportion of memory T cells in their immune systems. Other scientists have shown that sepsis leads to a wipeout of memory T cells, and probably vulnerability in defending against infection. Read more

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One more gene between us and bird flu

We’re always in favor of stopping a massive viral pandemic, or at least knowing more about what might make one happen. So we read a recent PLOS Pathogens paper with interest. The general theme is similar to this February 2019 paper from Anice Lowen’s lab in PNAS. To paraphrase Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: birds and humans living together, mass hysteria!

Here, Emory researchers looked at the M segment of influenza virus, which appears to determine host restriction, or the ability of viruses that infect bird cells to migrate to mammals. The M segment, was important for emergence of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu.

One of eight influenza gene segments, the M segment encodes a protein that can interfere with cellular functions (autophagic vesicles) on which the virus relies. The new data reveal that reductions in M2 protein occurred in connection with past important adaptation events, such as when a Eurasian avian-like swine virus emerged from birds in the 1970s.

“This mechanism constitutes a novel paradigm in RNA virus host adaptation, and reveals a new species barrier for IAV, which may be highly relevant for the emergence of avian IAVs into humans,” the authors conclude. Read more

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Antibody diversity mutations come from a vast genetic library

Vaccine scientists want to nudge the immune system into producing antibodies that will protect us from infection. In doing so, they are playing with fire – in a limited way. With every healthy antibody response, a process of internal evolution takes place among B cells, the immune cells that produce antibodies. It’s called “somatic hypermutation.”

In the lymph nodes, individual B cells undergo an accelerated rate of mutation. It’s as if those B cells’ DNA were being cooked with radiation or mutagenic chemicals – but only in a few genes. Then the lymph nodes select the B cells with high-affinity antibodies.

Gordon Dale, a just-defended graduate student from Joshy Jacob’s lab in Emory Vaccine Center, has a new paper in Journal of Immunology that sheds light on how somatic hypermutation takes place in both mice and humans.

In particular, Dale and Jacob found that the mutations that occur in human and mouse antibody genes are not random. They appear to borrow information from gene segments that are leftovers from the process of assembling antibody DNA in B cells.

In a mix and match process called VDJ recombination, B cells use one of many V, D, and J segments to form their antibody genes. What Dale and Jacob were looking at occurs after the VDJ step, when B cells get stimulated as part of an immune response.

They analyzed the patterns of mutations in human and mouse antibody genes, and found that mutations tend to come together, in a way that suggests that they are being copied from leftover V segments. They call this pattern “tem Read more

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Emory Microbiome Research Center inaugural symposium

Interest in bacteria and other creatures living on and inside us keeps climbing. On August 15 and 16, scientists from a wide array of disciplines will gather for the Emory Microbiome Research Center inaugural symposium.

On the first day, Lab Land is looking forward to hearing from several of the speakers, touching on topics stretching from insects/agricultural pathogens to neurodegenerative disease. The second day is a hands on workshop organized by instructor Anna Knight on sorting through microbiome data. The symposium will be at WHSCAB (Woodruff Health Sciences Center Auditorium). Registration before August 2 is encouraged!

Many of the projects that we highlighted four years ago, when Emory held its first microbiome symposium, have continued and gathered momentum. Guest keynotes are from Rodney Newberry from WUSTL and Gary Wu from Penn.

 

Read more

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B cells off the rails early in lupus

New research on the autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) provides hints to the origins of the puzzling disorder. The results are published in Nature Immunology.

In people with SLE, their B cells – part of the immune system – are abnormally activated. That makes them produce antibodies that react against their own tissues, causing a variety of symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes and kidney problems.

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine could discern that in people with SLE, signals driving expansion and activation are present at an earlier stage of B cell differentiation than previously appreciated. They identified patterns of gene activity that could be used as biomarkers for disease development.

Activation can be observed at an early stage of B cell differentiation: resting naive cells (pink ellipse). Adapted from Jenks et al Immunity (2018).

“Our data indicate a disease signature across all cell subsets, and importantly on mature resting B cells, suggesting that such cells may have been exposed to disease-inducing signals,” the authors write.

The paper reflects a collaboration between the laboratories of Jeremy Boss, PhD, chairman of microbiology and immunology, and Ignacio (Iñaki) Sanz, MD, head of the division of rheumatology in the Department of Medicine. Sanz, recipient of the 2019 Lupus Insight Prize from the Lupus Research Alliance, is director of the Lowance Center for Human Immunology and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. The first author is Christopher Scharer, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.

The researchers studied blood samples from 9 African American women with SLE and 12 healthy controls. They first sorted the B cells into subsets, and then looked at the DNA in the women’s B cells, analyzing the patterns of gene activity. Sanz’s team had previously observed that people with SLE have an expansion of “activated naïve” and DN2 B cells, especially during flares, periods when their symptoms are worse. Read more

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I3 Venture awards info

Emory is full of fledgling biomedical proto-companies. Some of them are actual corporations with employees, while others are ideas that need a push to get them to that point. Along with the companies highlighted by the Emory Biotech Consulting Club, Dean Sukhatme’s recent announcement of five I3 Venture research awards gives more examples of early stage research projects with commercial potential.

This is the third round of the I3 awards; the first two were Wow! (basic discovery) and Synergy II/Nexus (promoting interdisciplinary collaboration). For the five Venture awards, the Dean’s office is providing a total of $100,000. The companies will then use the momentum to seek larger amounts of funding from various sources. Lab Land is still collecting information on the projects:

 

Faculty Name Technology Relevant links
Ray Dingledine + Thota Ganesh Pyrefin EP2 receptor antagonists vs epilepsy, pain, inflammation New class of potential drugs inhibits inflammation in brain
Mark Goodman, W. Robert Taylor Microbial Medical PET imaging agent for detection of bacterial infections Spoonful of sugar helps infection detection
Carlos Moreno + Christian Larsen ResonanceDx Miniaturized rapid creatinine test for point of care use  
Edmund Waller + Taofeek Owonikoko Cambium Oncology Enhancing responsiveness of pancreatic cancer to immunotherapy The Company’s lead compound was effective in animal studies for pancreatic cancer, melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma.
Chunhui Xu TK High-throughput screening for antiarrhythmic drugs using cardiomyocytes Fetal alcohol toxicity – in a dish // Cardiac ‘disease in a dish’ models advance arrhythmia research
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