Study finds ‘important implications’ to understanding immunity against COVID-19

New research from Emory University indicates that nearly all people hospitalized with COVID-19 develop virus-neutralizing antibodies within six days of testing positive. The findings will be key in helping researchers understand protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2 and in informing vaccine development. The test that Emory researchers developed also could help determine whether convalescent plasma from COVID-19 survivors can provide immunity to others, and which donors' plasma should be used. The antibody test developed by Emory and validated Read more

Emory plays leading role in landmark HIV prevention study of injectable long-acting cabotegravir

Emory University played a key role in a landmark international study evaluating the safety and efficacy of the long-acting, injectable drug, cabotegravir (CAB LA), for HIV prevention. The randomized, controlled, double-blind study found that cabotegravir was 69% more effective (95% CI 41%-84%) in preventing HIV acquisition in men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with men when compared to the current standard of care, daily oral emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Read more

Yerkes researchers find Zika infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain problems

Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown Zika virus infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain and behavior problems, including persistent socioemotional, cognitive and motor deficits, as well as abnormalities in brain structure and function. This study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection after birth. “Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about Read more

LCMV

Stem-like CD8 T cells stay in lymph nodes/spleen

In a mouse model of chronic viral infection, there are very few virus-specific killer T cells in the blood, Emory Vaccine Center scientists report in a new paper in PNAS. This has implications for efforts to enhance cancer immunotherapy, because in both chronic viral infection and cancer, the same types of exhausted T cells accumulate.

CD8 T cells in lymphoid tissue (spleen) – from Im et al Nature (2016)

Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed’s lab has learned a great deal about exhausted T cells by studying the LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus) model. In this situation, virus-specific CD8 T cells accumulate in lymph nodes and in other organs, without circulating in the blood, because they acquire a residency program, the PNAS authors write. Postdoc Sejin Im’s 2016 paper defined these “stem-like” cells – he is the first author of the new one as well.

A related phenomenon can be seen in the Kissick lab’s recent paper on immune “outposts” in kidney and other urologic tumors. The stem-like cells stay within the tumor and give rise to similar progeny. One consequence may be that treatments aimed at reactivating those cells need to get inside the tumor.

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Antiviral success makes some immune cells stickier

As they succeed in clearing a viral infection from the body, some virus-hunting T cells begin to stick better to their target cells, researchers from Emory Vaccine Center and Georgia Tech have discovered.

The increased affinity helps the T cells kill their target cells more efficiently, but it depends both on the immune cells’ anatomic location and the phase of the infection.

The results were published this week in the journal Immunity.

Arash Grakoui, PhD

Arash Grakoui, PhD

After the peak of the infection, cells within the red pulp of the spleen or in the blood displayed a higher affinity for their targets than those within the white pulp. However, the white pulp T cells were more likely to become long-lasting memory T cells, critical for vaccines.

“These results provide a better understanding of how memory precursor populations are established and may have important implications for the development of efficacious vaccines,” the scientists write.

In the mouse model the researchers were using, the differences in affinity were only detectable a few days after the non-lethal LCMV viral infection peaks. How the differences were detected illustrates the role of serendipity in science, says senior author Arash Grakoui, PhD.

Typically, the scientists would have taken samples only at the peak (day 7 of the infection) and weeks later, when memory T cells had developed, Grakoui says. In January 2014, the weather intervened during one of these experiments. Snow disrupted transportation in the Atlanta area and prevented postdoctoral fellow Young-Jin Seo, PhD from taking samples from the infected mice until day 11, which is when the differences in affinity were apparent.

Seo and Grakoui collaborated with graduate student Prithiviraj Jothikumar and Cheng Zhu, PhD at Georgia Tech, using a technique Zhu’s laboratory has developed to measure the interactions between T cells and their target cells. Co-author Mehul Suthar, PhD performed gene expression analysis.

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Immune ‘traffic jam’ from viral infection

Several drugs now used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases are actually repurposed tools derived from the immune system. One of the ways these “therapeutic antibodies” work is to grab onto malignant or inflammatory cells and escort them to their doom.

Emory researchers have found that in a mouse model of chronic viral infection, a kind of traffic pileup inside the body limits how effective therapeutic antibodies can be.

The results, published this week in Immunity, have implications for biotechnology researchers who continue to refine antibodies for therapeutic purposes, as well as bolster our understanding of how chronic viral infections impair the immune system.

Researchers led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center, were studying mice infected by LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus). They injected several antibodies with the goal of removing various types of immune cells from the mice.  One end of the antibody molecule is supposed to bind the target cell, while another acts as a flag for other cells to get rid of the target cell.

However, during a chronic LCMV infection, the mouse’s immune system is producing its own antibodies against the virus, which form complexes with viral proteins. These immune complexes prevented the injected antibodies from having the effect the scientists wanted, which was to deplete their target cells.

Excessive amounts of immune complexes appear to be “clogging” the Fc gamma receptors that immune cells would use to grab the antibodies bound to the target cell, says postdoctoral fellow Andreas Wieland, PhD, first author of the Immunity paper. That these immune complexes form was not news; but how much they interfere with other antibodies was, Wieland says. Fc gamma receptors were already known to be important for antibodies to be effective against influenza and HIV. Read more

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General-heavy army disastrous in immune battle

Immunologists have identified two big groups of T cells: “helper” CD4+ cells and “killer” CD8+ cells.* The helper cells can produce immune regulatory molecules and promote antibody responses, while the killer cells recognize and destroy virally-infected cells.

A vaccine against a virus that stimulates only helper CD4+ cells leads to uncontrolled lethal inflammation in mice once the animals are challenged with the virus, a recent paper in Science shows. Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed is a co-author.

Senior author Dan Barouch, from Harvard/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, tells The Scientist that CD4+ cells are like generals directing the battle of the immune system and “if you just have strategic generals and no soldiers, it turns out to be worse than having no army at all.” Rebalancing the system with antiviral CD8+ T cells or antibodies helps limit the problems.

The findings mesh with work by Yerkes investigators [Guido Silvestri and colleagues] suggesting that HIV vaccines that boost CD4+ cells in gateway mucosal tissues lead to higher rates of infection. In both cases, the lesson is: having more helper CD4+ T cells around actually does not help. Read more

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Connections between starvation and immunological memory

Researchers at Emory have been revealing several connections between cells’ responses to starvation and immunological memory. The latest example of this is a paper in Nature Immunology from Rafi Ahmed’s lab, showing that the cellular process of autophagy (literally: self-consumption) is essential for forming and maintaining memory T cells.

This finding has some practical implications for vaccination and could point the way to additives that could boost vaccine effectiveness in elderly humans. Researchers at Oxford have demonstrated that autophagy is diminished in T cells from aged mice, and T cell responses could be boosted in older mice using the autophagy-inducing compound spermidine. Read more

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Cancer’s shield: PD-1

Gina Kolata has a section front story in Tuesday’s New York Times exploring the potential of a relatively new class of anticancer drugs. The drugs break through “shields” built by cancers to ward off the threat posed by the patient’s immune system. Many are based on blocking PD-1, an immune regulatory molecule whose importance in chronic infections was first defined by Emory’s Rafi Ahmed.

Of course, not every cancer research development described as transformative in the New York Times lives up to the hype. But the clinical trial results, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, are solid enough that the researchers Kolata talks with think they are seeing “a moment in medical history when everything changed.” [Winship Cancer Institute’s John Kauh was a co-author on one of the 2012 NEJM papers.]

Let’s take a moment to examine some of the roots of this story. Rafi Ahmed didn’t set out to study cancer. For the last two decades, he and his colleagues have been studying T cells, parts of the immune system that are critical for responding to infections. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Immunology 2 Comments

Respiratory infection may lead to weaker immunological memory

How you vaccinate helps determine how you protect. This idea lies behind many researchers’ interest in mucosal vaccines. How a vaccine is administered (orally/nasally vs intramuscular, for example) could make a difference later, when the immune system faces the bad guys the vaccine is supposed to strengthen defenses against.

How does the route of immunization affect the quality of immunity later on? For example, is a nasal spray best when trying to prevent respiratory infections?

A recent paper from Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed’s laboratory challenges this idea. The paper was published in the Journal of Immunology. Scott Mueller, now an Australian Research Council research fellow at the University of Melbourne, is first author.

Memory T cells are a key part of a response to a vaccine, because they stick around after an infection, enabling the immune system to fight an invading virus more quickly and strongly the second time around. In the paper, the Emory team compared memory T cells that form in mice after they are infected in the respiratory system by a flu virus or throughout their bodies by a virus that causes meningitis (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus or LCMV).

The authors engineered a flu virus to carry a tiny bit of LCMV (an epitope, in immunological terms) so that they could compare apples to apples by measuring the same kind of T cells. They found that memory T cells generated after a flu infection are weaker, in that they proliferate and stimulate other immune cells less, than after a LCMV infection. This goes against the idea that after a respiratory infection, the immune system will be better able to face a challenge in the respiratory system.

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