Scientists identify new mechanism that turns CD4 helper T lymphocytes into killer cells

Published on January 21, 2013 at 1:59 AM · No Comments

A research team led by the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology has discovered the mechanism that enables CD4 helper T cells to assume the more aggressive role of killer T cells in mounting an immune attack against viruses, cancerous tumors and other damaged or infected cells. The finding, made in collaboration with researchers from the RIKEN Institute in Japan, could enable the development of more potent drugs for AIDS, cancer and many other diseases based on using this mechanism to trigger larger armies of killer T cells against infected or damaged cells.

CD4 helper T cells, which normally assist other cells of the immune system during an infection, and CD8 killer T cells, which directly attack and eliminate infected cells, are two of the body's most important immune cells for defending against diseases. Earlier research studies have shown that helper T cells can become killer cells in some instances. However, the specific mechanism of action that allowed this to occur was not known until now.

"We have identified the molecular switch that enables CD4 T cells to override their programming as helper cells and transform into cytolytic (killer) cells," said La Jolla Institute scientist and study co-leader Hilde Cheroutre, Ph.D. "Our team also showed that these transformed helper T cells represent a separate and distinct population of cells. They are not a subset of TH-1 helper cells as previously thought."

Jay A. Berzofsky, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Vaccine Branch at the National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research, called the finding "a major advance" that provides new understanding about the cell's lineage and basic mechanisms. Dr. Berzofsky was among the researchers whose work in the 1980s first demonstrated that helper cells could convert to killer cells. "Understanding how these cells derive and what causes them to switch from helper T cells to cytolytic T cells is an important step to learning how to manipulate them in disease," he said, noting it could lead to novel approaches "either to turn these cells off in autoimmune disease or turn them on in infectious diseases."

He added that the finding could also have important implications in cancer. "We need all of the cytolytic machinery that we can get to try to destroy cancers," he said. "If we can learn to turn them on, I think it's reasonable to believe that these cytolytic T cells can play an important role in controlling cancer."

The findings were published today in Nature Immunology in a paper entitled "Transcriptional reprogramming of mature CD4 helper T cells generates distinct MHC class II-restricted cytotoxic T lymphocytes." Dr. Cheroutre is co-senior author on the study together with Dr. Ichiro Taniuchi of the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. First authors on the paper are: Mohammad Mushtaq Husain, Ph.D., of the La Jolla Institute; Daniel Mucida, Ph.D., formerly of the La Jolla Institute, now at Rockefeller University; Femke van Wijk, Ph.D., formerly of the La Jolla Institute, now at the University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands, and Sawako Muroi, of the RIKEN Institute.

Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D., La Jolla Institute president & chief scientific officer, said the study reflects the very successful collaboration between the La Jolla Institute and RIKEN in Japan, which have joined efforts on a number of projects over the years.

In the study, the researchers found that a certain transcription factor, which are molecules in the cell nucleus that control the activity of cells, continually suppresses the killer T cell lineage in helper T cells. Using mice, the team showed that turning off this transcription factor (ThPOK) enabled the helper cells in the body's peripheral areas, like the blood, spleen and the intestine, to override their original programming and to become killer T cells. "While our work focused on the intestines, we found that helper T cells in all tissues of the body have the potential to become killer cells in response to recognition of viral, tumor or other antigens in the context of cytokines such as IL-15," said Dr. Cheroutre.

Jonathan Braun, M.D., chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, praised the study as laying the groundwork for using T helper cells in a much more aggressive manner. "Helper T cells are mainly understood for their role in regulating other immune cells," he said. "This work reveals how they themselves can be triggered to become the action cells in the immune response. This opens new possibilities for how to manipulate them therapeutically in disease."

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