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autoimmune disorders

Immune Macrophages Use Their Own ‘Morse Code’

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Credit: Hoffmann Lab, UCLA

In the language of Morse code, the letter “S” is three short sounds and the letter “O” is three longer sounds. Put them together in the right order and you have a cry for help: S.O.S. Now an NIH-funded team of researchers has cracked a comparable code that specialized immune cells called macrophages use to signal and respond to a threat.

In fact, by “listening in” on thousands of macrophages over time, one by one, the researchers have identified not just a lone distress signal, or “word,” but a vocabulary of six words. Their studies show that macrophages use these six words at different times to launch an appropriate response. What’s more, they have evidence that autoimmune conditions can arise when immune cells misuse certain words in this vocabulary. This bad communication can cause them incorrectly to attack substances produced by the immune system itself as if they were a foreign invaders.

The findings, published recently in the journal Immunity, come from a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) team led by Alexander Hoffmann and Adewunmi Adelaja. As an example of this language of immunity, the video above shows in both frames many immune macrophages (blue and red). You may need to watch the video four times to see what’s happening (I did). Each time you run the video, focus on one of the highlighted cells (outlined in white or green), and note how its nuclear signal intensity varies over time. That signal intensity is plotted in the rectangular box at the bottom.

The macrophages come from a mouse engineered in such a way that cells throughout its body light up to reveal the internal dynamics of an important immune signaling protein called nuclear NFκB. With the cells illuminated, the researchers could watch, or “listen in,” on this important immune signal within hundreds of individual macrophages over time to attempt to recognize and begin to interpret potentially meaningful patterns.

On the left side, macrophages are responding to an immune activating molecule called TNF. On the right, they’re responding to a bacterial toxin called LPS. While the researchers could listen to hundreds of cells at once, in the video they’ve randomly selected two cells (outlined in white or green) on each side to focus on in this example.

As shown in the box in the lower portion of each frame, the cells didn’t respond in precisely the same way to the same threat, just like two people might pronounce the same word slightly differently. But their responses nevertheless show distinct and recognizable patterns. Each of those distinct patterns could be decomposed into six code words. Together these six code words serve as a previously unrecognized immune language!

Overall, the researchers analyzed how more than 12,000 macrophage cells communicated in response to 27 different immune threats. Based on the possible arrangement of temporal nuclear NFκB dynamics, they then generated a list of more than 900 pattern features that could be potential “code words.”

Using an algorithm developed decades ago for the telecommunications industry, they then monitored which of the potential words showed up reliably when macrophages responded to a particular threatening stimulus, such as a bacterial or viral toxin. This narrowed their list to six specific features, or “words,” that correlated with a particular response.

To confirm that these pattern features contained meaning, the team turned to machine learning. If they taught a computer just those six words, they asked, could it distinguish the external threats to which the computerized cells were responding? The answer was yes.

But what if the computer had five words available, instead of six? The researchers found that the computer made more mistakes in recognizing the stimulus, leading the team to conclude that all six words are indeed needed for reliable cellular communication.

To begin to explore the implications of their findings for understanding autoimmune diseases, the researchers conducted similar studies in macrophages from a mouse model of Sjögren’s syndrome, a systemic condition in which the immune system often misguidedly attacks cells that produce saliva and tears. When they listened in on these cells, they found that they used two of the six words incorrectly. As a result, they activated the wrong responses, causing the body to mistakenly perceive a serious threat and attack itself.

While previous studies have proposed that immune cells employ a language, this is the first to identify words in that language, and to show what can happen when those words are misused. Now that researchers have a list of words, the next step is to figure out their precise definitions and interpretations [2] and, ultimately, how their misuse may be corrected to treat immunological diseases.


[1] Six distinct NFκB signaling codons convey discrete information to distinguish stimuli and enable appropriate macrophage responses. Adelaja A, Taylor B, Sheu KM, Liu Y, Luecke S, Hoffmann A. Immunity. 2021 May 11;54(5):916-930.e7.

[2] NF-κB dynamics determine the stimulus specificity of epigenomic reprogramming in macrophages. Cheng QJ, Ohta S, Sheu KM, Spreafico R, Adelaja A, Taylor B, Hoffmann A. Science. 2021 Jun 18;372(6548):1349-1353.


Overview of the Immune System (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Sjögren’s Syndrome (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Alexander Hoffmann (UCLA)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

An Evolutionary Guide to New Immunotherapies

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Credit: Dave Titensor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.

While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.

Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.

With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense [1]. The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.

Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA [2]. Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.

It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA [3]. Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it [4].

Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.

Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.

Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells [5]. Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.

Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!


[1] Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.

[2] A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.

[3] Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.

[4] To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.

[5] Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.


Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Elde Lab (University of Utah)

Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)

Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)

Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute

Introducing AMP: The Accelerating Medicines Partnership

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Pie charts showing AMP targets reducing failures due to efficacy

Caption: Lack of efficacy currently accounts for more than half of all drug failures in Phase II clinical studies (left). If AMP’s target validation efforts improve efficacy by 90% (right), the success rate will rise significantly.

It would seem like there’s never been a better time for drug development. Recent advances in genomics, proteomics, imaging, and other technologies have led to the discovery of more than a thousand risk factors for common diseases—biological changes that ought to hold promise as targets for drugs.

But this deluge of new opportunities has to be put in context: drug development is a terribly difficult business. To the dismay of researchers, drug companies, and patients alike, the vast majority of drugs entering the development pipeline fall by the wayside. The most distressing failures occur when a drug is found to be ineffective in the later stages of development—in Phase II or Phase III clinical studies—after years of work and millions of dollars have already been spent [1]. Why is this happening? One major reason is that we’re not selecting the right biological changes to target from the start.