Molecular picture of how antiviral drug molnupiravir works

A cryo-EM structure showing how the antiviral drug molnupiravir drug Read more

Straight to the heart: direct reprogramming creates cardiac “tissue” in mice

New avenues for a quest many cardiologists have pursued: repairing the damaged heart like patching a Read more

The future of your face is plastic

An industrial plastic stabilizer becomes a skin Read more

Rafi Ahmed

Another side to cancer immunotherapy? Emory scientists investigate intratumoral B cells

Immunotherapies have transformed the treatment of several types of cancer over the last decade. Yet they focus on reactivating one arm of the immune system: cytotoxic T cells, which sniff out and kill tumor cells.

In a new paper in Nature, scientists at Emory Vaccine Center and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University (Winship) report on their detailed look at B cells’ presence inside tumors. B cells represent the other major arm of the adaptive immune system, besides T cells, and could offer opportunities for new treatments against some kinds of cancers.

“Intratumoral B cells are an area of growing interest, because several studies have now shown that they are associated with a better prognosis and longer survival,” says first author Andreas Wieland, PhD, an Instructor in Rafi Ahmed’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. “However, nobody really knows what those B cells are specific for.”

Wieland, Ahmed and colleagues decided to concentrate on head and neck cancers that were positive for human papillomavirus (HPV), because the virus provided a defined set of tumor-associated antigens, facilitating the study of tumor-specific B cells across patients.

“Our findings open the door for harnessing this type of cancer-specific immunity in future immunotherapy applications,” says Nabil Saba, MD, director of the head and neck medical oncology program at Winship. “This has implications not just for HPV-related squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck, but for the broader field of immuno-oncology.”

The Emory Vaccine Center researchers worked with Saba and Winship surgeon Mihir Patel, MD to obtain samples of head and neck tumors removed from 43 patients.

“This has been a wonderful collaborative effort,” Patel adds. “We’re grateful to the patients whose tumor samples contributed to this study, and I’m looking forward to where this information takes us.”

Within HPV-positive tumors, researchers found an enrichment for B cells specific to HPV proteins, and a subset of these cells were actively secreting HPV-specific antibodies. In the tumors, they could see germinal center-like structures, resembling the regions within lymph nodes where B cells are “trained” during an immune response.

Orange represents tumor cells displaying the antigen p16, while green represents B cells, with the arrows indicating germinal center-like structures. Courtesy of Andreas Wieland.

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Immunology Leave a comment

In current vaccine research, adjuvants are no secret

Visionary immunologist Charlie Janeway was known for calling adjuvants – vaccine additives that enhance the immune response – a “dirty little secret.”

Charlie Janeway, MD, in a hat he wore often

Janeway’s point was that foreign antigens, by themselves, were unable to stimulate the components of the adaptive immune system (T and B cells) without signals from the innate immune system. Adjuvants facilitate that help.

By now, adjuvants are hardly a secret, looking at some of the research that has been coming out of Emory Vaccine Center. This week, an analysis by Ali Ellebedy, now at Washington University St Louis, and colleagues showed that in healthy volunteers, the AS03 adjuvant boosted otherwise poor immune responses to a limited dose of the exotic avian flu H5N1, recruiting both memory and naïve B cells. More on that here.

The Moderna SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, which has shown some activity in a small clinical trial here at Emory, has its own kind of adjuvant, since it’s made of both innate-immune-stimulating mRNA and clothed in lipid nanoparticles. Extra adjuvants may come into play later, either with this vaccine or others.

A question we’ve seen many people asking, and discussed on Twitter etc is this: how long does the immunity induced by a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine last? How can we make the immune cells induced by a vaccine stick around for a long time? Read more

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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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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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Leaving out sugar makes a better antibody drug

There’s a bit of sugar attached to your billion-dollar biotech product. Omitting the sugar (fucose) can help the product work better, Emory immunologists think.

Fucosylation is the red triangle on this diagram of the carbohydrate modifications of antibodies. Adapted from KTC Shade + RM Anthony, Antibodies (2013) and used through Creative Commons license.

Many drugs now used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases are antibodies, originally derived from the immune system. A classic example of a “therapeutic antibody” is rituximab, a treatment for B cell malignancies that was FDA-approved in 1997. It has been responsible for billions of dollars in revenue for its maker, pharmaceutical giant Roche.

Researchers at Emory Vaccine Center previously observed that in a mouse model of chronic viral infection, a traffic jam inside the body limits how effective therapeutic antibodies can be. One of the ways these antibodies work is to grab onto malignant or inflammatory cells. One end of the antibody is supposed to bind the target cell, while another is a flag for other cells to eliminate the target cell. During a chronic viral infection, a 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 depleting their target cells.

In a recent Science Immunology paper, postdoc Andreas Wieland, Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed and colleagues showed that antibodies that lack fucosylation have an enhanced ability to get rid of their intended targets. Fucosylation is a type of sugar modification of the antibody. (It is the red triangle in the diagram, provided by Wieland.) When it is not present, then the “flag for removal” region of the antibody can interact more avidly with the Fc gamma receptor on immune cells. Thus, the introduced antibodies can compete more effectively with the antibodies being produced by the body already.

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Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology 1 Comment

Four hot projects at Emory in 2017

Once activated by cancer immunotherapy drugs, T cells still need fuel (CD28)

— Rafi Ahmed’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. Also see T cell revival predicts lung cancer outcomes. At Thursday’s Winship symposium on cancer immunotherapy, Rafi said the name of the game is now combinations, with an especially good one being PD-1 inhibitors plus IL2.

Pilot study shows direct amygdala stimulation can enhance human memory

— Cory Inman, Joe Manns, Jon Willie. Effects being optimized, see SFN abstract.

Immune responses of five returning travelers infected by Zika virus

— Lilin Lai, Mark Mulligan. Covered here, Emory Hope Clinic and Baylor have data from more patients.

Frog slime kills flu virus

— Joshy Jacob’s lab at Emory Vaccine Center. A follow-up peptide with a name referencing Star Wars is coming.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Uncategorized Leave a comment

Flu meeting at Emory next week

We are looking forward to the “Immunology and Evolution of Influenza” symposium next week (Thursday the 25th and Friday the 26th).

The symposium is taking place in Whitehead Auditorium in the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building. Talks from flu researchers based around the country, followed by a poster session, are on Thursday. From Emory, Jacob Kohlmeier and Rafi Ahmed are speaking Friday morning.

Organizers are asking for registration by Friday the 19th. The symposium is jointly sponsored by the Center for Inference and Dynamics of Infectious Diseases, funded by NIGMS, and the Center for Modeling Immunity to Influenza Infection, funded by NIAID.

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Cancer immunotherapy responses in the clinic: T cell revival as predictor

In lung cancer patients who were taking immunotherapy drugs, testing for revived immune cells in their blood partially predicted whether their tumors would shrink. The results were published online by PNAS on April 26.

This finding comes from a small study of 29 patients, who were being treated at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University with drugs blocking the PD-1 pathway, also known as checkpoint inhibitors.

The study supports a straightforward idea: if tumor-specific CD8 T cells appear to respond to the drug (nivolumab, pembrolizumab or atezolizumab), that’s a good sign. This avenue of investigation may also help researchers figure out why some patients do not benefit from checkpoint inhibitor drugs, and how to combine those drugs with other treatments to increase response rates.

While looking for activated immune cells in the blood is not yet predictive enough for routine clinical use, such tests could provide timely information. Monitoring the immune response could potentially help oncologists and patients decide, within just a few weeks of starting immunotherapy drugs, whether to continue with the treatment or combine it with something else, says co-senior author Suresh Ramalingam, MD, Winship’s deputy director.

“We hypothesize that re-activated CD8 T cells first proliferate in the lymph nodes, then transition through the blood and migrate to the inflamed tissue,” says Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. “We believe some of the activated T cells in patients’ blood may be on their way to the tumor.”

The rest of the Emory Vaccine Center/Winship Cancer Institute press release is here. A few additional points: Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Immunology Leave a comment

Revived T cells still need fuel

Cancer immunotherapy drugs blocking the PD-1 pathway – known as checkpoint inhibitors – are now FDA-approved for melanoma, lung cancer and several other types of cancer. These drugs are often described as “releasing the brakes” on dysfunctional T cells.

A new study from Emory Vaccine Center and Winship Cancer Institute researchers shows that even if the PD-1-imposed brakes are released, the tumor-specific T cells still need “fuel” to expand in numbers and restore effective immune responses. That fuel comes from co-stimulation through a molecule called CD28.

The results were published Thursday by the journal Science.

Despite the success of PD-1-targeting drugs, many patients’ tumors do not respond to them. The study’s findings indicate that CD28’s presence on T cells could be a clinical biomarker capable of predicting whether drugs targeting PD-1 will be effective. In addition, the requirement for CD28 suggests that co-stimulation may be missing for some patients, which could guide the design of combination therapies.

For the rest of our press release and quotes from authors Rafi Ahmed, Alice Kamphorst and Suresh Ramalingam, please go here. For some additional links and thoughts on PD-1 and CD28, read on:

Read more

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Dengue infection makes exhausted T cells?

An ongoing collaboration between the Emory Vaccine Center and the ICGEB (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) in New Delh, investigating immune responses to dengue virus, is getting some attention.

A Journal of Virology paper published by the collaboration was highlighted by Nature Asia. In that paper, the researchers show that in dengue infection, the group of antiviral immune cells known as CD8+ T cells undergoes a massive expansion. That could be dangerous if all of the CD8 T cells were making inflammatory cytokines, but they do not. Only a small fraction are making cytokines.

The authors point out that this phenomenon is “somewhat reminiscent of T-cell exhaustion seen under the conditions of prolonged antigenic stimulus in chronic viral infections [which has been studied in detail by Rafi Ahmed and colleagues] or closely resembles the ‘stunned’ phenotype reported in febrile phase of other acute infections such as HIV and viral hepatitis… The IFN-γ unresponsiveness acquired during the massive antigen-driven clonal expansion is likely to ensure that these cells do not cause excessive inflammation at the time that their numbers are high during the febrile phase of dengue disease.” Read more

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