Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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  and, ultimately, how their misuse may be corrected to treat immunological diseases.
 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.
 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
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Most children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop only a mild illness. But, days or weeks later, a small percentage of kids go on to develop a puzzling syndrome known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). This severe inflammation of organs and tissues can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and eyes.
Thankfully, most kids with MIS-C respond to treatment and make rapid recoveries. But, tragically, MIS-C can sometimes be fatal.
With COVID-19 cases in children having increased by 21 percent in the United States since early August , NIH and others are continuing to work hard on getting a handle on this poorly understood complication. Many think that MIS-C isn’t a direct result of the virus, but seems more likely to be due to an intense autoimmune response. Indeed, a recent study in Nature Medicine  offers some of the first evidence that MIS-C is connected to specific changes in the immune system that, for reasons that remain mysterious, sometimes follow COVID-19.
These findings come from Shane Tibby, a researcher at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London. United Kingdom; Manu Shankar-Hari, a scientist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London; and colleagues. The researchers enlisted 25 children, ages 7 to 14, who developed MIS-C in connection with COVID-19. In search of clues, they examined blood samples collected from the children during different stages of their care, starting when they were most ill through recovery and follow-up. They then compared the samples to those of healthy children of the same ages.
What they found was a complex array of immune disruptions. The children had increased levels of various inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, alongside raised levels of other markers suggesting tissue damage—such as troponin, which indicates heart muscle injury.
The neutrophils, monocytes, and other white blood cells that rapidly respond to infections were activated as expected. But the levels of certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes were paradoxically reduced. Interestingly, despite the low overall numbers of T lymphocytes, particular subsets of them appeared activated as though fighting an infection. While the children recovered, those differences gradually disappeared as the immune system returned to normal.
It has been noted that MIS-C bears some resemblance to an inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease, which also primarily affects children. While there are similarities, this new work shows that MIS-C is a distinct illness associated with COVID-19. In fact, only two children in the study met the full criteria for Kawasaki disease based on the clinical features and symptoms of their illness.
Another recent study from the United Kingdom, reported several new symptoms of MIS-C . They include headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, and sore throat. Researchers also determined that the number of platelets was much lower in the blood of children with MIS-C than in those without the condition. They proposed that evaluating a child’s symptoms along with his or her platelet level could help to diagnose MIS-C.
It will now be important to learn much more about the precise mechanisms underlying these observed changes in the immune system and how best to treat or prevent them. In support of this effort, NIH recently announced $20 million in research funding dedicated to the development of approaches that identify children at high risk for developing MIS-C .
The hope is that this new NIH effort, along with other continued efforts around the world, will elucidate the factors influencing the likelihood that a child with COVID-19 will develop MIS-C. Such insights are essential to allow doctors to intervene as early as possible and improve outcomes for this potentially serious condition.
 Peripheral immunophenotypes in children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Carter MJ, Fish M, Jennings A, Doores KJ, Wellman P, Seow J, Acors S, Graham C, Timms E, Kenny J, Neil S, Malim MH, Tibby SM, Shankar-Hari M. Nat Med. 2020 Aug 18.
 Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. August 24, 2020.
 Clinical characteristics of children and young people admitted to hospital with covid-19 in United Kingdom: prospective multicentre observational cohort study. Swann OV, Holden KA, Turtle L, Harrison EW, Docherty AB, Semple MG, et al. Br Med J. 2020 Aug 17.
 NIH-funded project seeks to identify children at risk for MIS-C. NIH. August 7, 2020.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Kawasaki Disease (Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
Shane Tibby (Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London)
Manu Shankar-Hari (King’s College, London)
NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Director; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities; Fogarty International Center
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Whether by snail mail, email, or social media, it’s the time of year for catching up with family and friends. As NIH Director, I’m also fortunate to hear from some of the amazing people who’ve been helped by NIH research. Among the greetings to arrive in my inbox this holiday season is this incredible video from a 15-year-old named Aaron, who is fortunate enough to count two states—Alabama and Colorado—as his home.
As a young boy, Aaron was naturally athletic, speeding around the baseball diamond and competing on the ski slopes in freestyle mogul. But around the age of 10, Aaron noticed something strange. He couldn’t move as fast as usual. Aaron pushed himself to get back up to speed, but his muscles grew progressively weaker.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
In the early 1960s, reports began to surface that some children living in remote villages in East Africa were suffering mysterious episodes of “head nodding.” The condition, now named nodding syndrome, is recognized as a rare and devastating form of epilepsy. There were hints that the syndrome might be caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted through the bites of blackflies. But no one had been able to tie the parasitic infection directly to the nodding heads.
Now, NIH researchers and their international colleagues think they’ve found the missing link. The human immune system turns out to be a central player. After analyzing blood and cerebrospinal fluid of kids with nodding syndrome, they detected a particular antibody at unusually high levels . Further studies suggest the immune system ramps up production of that antibody to fight off the parasite. The trouble is those antibodies also react against a protein in healthy brain tissue, apparently leading to progressive cognitive dysfunction, neurological deterioration, head nodding, and potentially life-threatening seizures.
The findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, have important implications for the treatment and prevention of not only nodding syndrome, but perhaps other autoimmune-related forms of epilepsy. As people in the United States and around the globe today observe the 10th anniversary of international Rare Disease Day, this work provides yet another example of how rare disease research can shed light on more common diseases and fundamental aspects of human biology.