Teaching the Immune System to Attack Cancer with Greater Precision
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
To protect humans from COVID-19, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines program human cells to translate the injected synthetic messenger RNA into the coronavirus spike protein, which then primes the immune system to arm itself against future appearances of that protein. It turns out that the immune system can also be trained to spot and attack distinctive proteins on cancer cells, killing them and leaving healthy cells potentially untouched.
While these precision cancer vaccines remain experimental, researchers continue to make basic discoveries that move the field forward. That includes a recent NIH-funded study in mice that helps to refine the selection of protein targets on tumors as a way to boost the immune response . To enable this boost, the researchers first had to discover a possible solution to a longstanding challenge in developing precision cancer vaccines: T cell exhaustion.
The term refers to the immune system’s complement of T cells and their capacity to learn to recognize foreign proteins, also known as neoantigens, and attack them on cancer cells to shrink tumors. But these responding T cells can exhaust themselves attacking tumors, limiting the immune response and making its benefits short-lived.
In this latest study, published in the journal Cell, Tyler Jacks and Megan Burger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, help to explain this phenomenon of T cell exhaustion. The researchers found in mice with lung tumors that the immune system initially responds as it should. It produces lots of T cells that target many different cancer-specific proteins.
Yet there’s a problem: various subsets of T cells get in each other’s way. They compete until, eventually, one of those subsets becomes the dominant T cell type. Even when those dominant T cells grow exhausted, they still remain in the tumor and keep out other T cells, which might otherwise attack different neoantigens in the cancer.
Building on this basic discovery, the researchers came up with a strategy for developing cancer vaccines that can “awaken” T cells and reinvigorate the body’s natural cancer-fighting abilities. The strategy might seem counterintuitive. The researchers vaccinated mice with neoantigens that provide a weak but encouraging signal to the immune cells responsible for presenting the distinctive cancer protein target, or antigen, to T cells. It’s those T cells that tend to get suppressed in competition with other T cells.
When the researchers vaccinated the mice with one of those neoantigens, the otherwise suppressed T cells grew in numbers and better targeted the tumor. What’s more, the tumors shrank by more than 25 percent on average.
Research on this new strategy remains in its early stages. The researchers hope to learn if this approach to cancer vaccines might work even better when used in combination with immunotherapy drugs, which unleash the immune system against cancer in other ways.
It’s also possible that the recent and revolutionary success of mRNA vaccines for preventing COVID-19 actually could help. An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the specific nucleic acid sequence of a protein target, and they can even combine different mRNA sequences to make a multiplex vaccine that primes the immune system to recognize multiple neoantigens. Now that we’ve seen how well mRNA vaccines work to prompt a desired immune response against COVID-19, this same technology can be used to speed the development and testing of future vaccines, including those designed precisely to fight cancer.
 Antigen dominance hierarchies shape TCF1+ progenitor CD8 T cell phenotypes in tumors. Burger ML, Cruz AM, Crossland GE, Gaglia G, Ritch CC, Blatt SE, Bhutkar A, Canner D, Kienka T, Tavana SZ, Barandiaran AL, Garmilla A, Schenkel JM, Hillman M, de Los Rios Kobara I, Li A, Jaeger AM, Hwang WL, Westcott PMK, Manos MP, Holovatska MM, Hodi FS, Regev A, Santagata S, Jacks T. Cell. 2021 Sep 16;184(19):4996-5014.e26.
Cancer Treatment Vaccines (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
The Jacks Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Immune Macrophages Use Their Own ‘Morse Code’
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
Building a Better Bacterial Trap for Sepsis
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Spiders spin webs to catch insects for dinner. It turns out certain human immune cells, called neutrophils, do something similar to trap bacteria in people who develop sepsis, an uncontrolled, systemic infection that poses a major challenge in hospitals.
When activated to catch sepsis-causing bacteria or other pathogens, neutrophils rupture and spew sticky, spider-like webs made of DNA and antibacterial proteins. Here in red you see one of these so-called neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) that’s ensnared Staphylococcus aureus (green), a type of bacteria known for causing a range of illnesses from skin infections to pneumonia.
Yet this image, which comes from Kandace Gollomp and Mortimer Poncz at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is much more than a fascinating picture. It demonstrates a potentially promising new way to treat sepsis.
The researchers’ strategy involves adding a protein called platelet factor 4 (PF4), which is released by clot-forming blood platelets, to the NETs. PF4 readily binds to NETs and enhances their capture of bacteria. A modified antibody (white), which is a little hard to see, coats the PF4-bound NET above. This antibody makes the NETs even better at catching and holding onto bacteria. Other immune cells then come in to engulf and clean up the mess.
Until recently, most discussions about NETs assumed they were causing trouble, and therefore revolved around how to prevent or get rid of them while treating sepsis. But such strategies faced a major obstacle. By the time most people are diagnosed with sepsis, large swaths of these NETs have already been spun. In fact, destroying them might do more harm than good by releasing entrapped bacteria and other toxins into the bloodstream.
In a recent study published in the journal Blood, Gollomp’s team proposed flipping the script . Rather than prevent or destroy NETs, why not modify them to work even better to fight sepsis? Their idea: Make NETs even stickier to catch more bacteria. This would lower the number of bacteria and help people recover from sepsis.
Gollomp recalled something lab member Anna Kowalska had noted earlier in unrelated mouse studies. She’d observed that high levels of PF4 were protective in mice with sepsis. Gollomp and her colleagues wondered if the PF4 might also be used to reinforce NETs. Sure enough, Gollomp’s studies showed that PF4 will bind to NETs, causing them to condense and resist break down.
Subsequent studies in mice and with human NETs cast in a synthetic blood vessel suggest that this approach might work. Treatment with PF4 greatly increased the number of bacteria captured by NETs. It also kept NETs intact and holding tightly onto their toxic contents. As a result, mice with sepsis fared better.
Of course, mice are not humans. More study is needed to see if the same strategy can help people with sepsis. For example, it will be important to determine if modified NETs are difficult for the human body to clear. Also, Gollomp thinks this approach might be explored for treating other types of bacterial infections.
Still, the group’s initial findings come as encouraging news for hospital staff and administrators. If all goes well, a future treatment based on this intriguing strategy may one day help to reduce the 270,000 sepsis-related deaths in the U.S. and its estimated more than $24 billion annual price tag for our nation’s hospitals [2, 3].
 Fc-modified HIT-like monoclonal antibody as a novel treatment for sepsis. Gollomp K, Sarkar A, Harikumar S, Seeholzer SH, Arepally GM, Hudock K, Rauova L, Kowalska MA, Poncz M. Blood. 2020 Mar 5;135(10):743-754.
 Sepsis, Data & Reports, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 14, 2020.
 National inpatient hospital costs: The most expensive conditions by payer, 2013: Statistical Brief #204. Torio CM, Moore BJ. Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) Statistical Briefs. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2016 May.
Sepsis (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
Kandace Gollomp (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA)
Mortimer Poncz (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA)
NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Many people who contract COVID-19 have only a mild illness, or sometimes no symptoms at all. But others develop respiratory failure that requires oxygen support or even a ventilator to help them recover . It’s clear that this happens more often in men than in women, as well as in people who are older or who have chronic health conditions. But why does respiratory failure also sometimes occur in people who are young and seemingly healthy?
A new study suggests that part of the answer to this question may be found in the genes that each one of us carries . While more research is needed to pinpoint the precise underlying genes and mechanisms responsible, a recent genome-wide association (GWAS) study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death.
The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system. In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.
These new findings—the first to identify statistically significant susceptibility genes for the severity of COVID-19—come from a large research effort led by Andre Franke, a scientist at Christian-Albrecht-University, Kiel, Germany, along with Tom Karlsen, Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet, Norway. Their study included 1,980 people undergoing treatment for severe COVID-19 and respiratory failure at seven medical centers in Italy and Spain.
In search of gene variants that might play a role in the severe illness, the team analyzed patient genome data for more than 8.5 million so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. The vast majority of these single “letter” nucleotide substitutions found all across the genome are of no health significance, but they can help to pinpoint the locations of gene variants that turn up more often in association with particular traits or conditions—in this case, COVID-19-related respiratory failure. To find them, the researchers compared SNPs in people with severe COVID-19 to those in more than 1,200 healthy blood donors from the same population groups.
The analysis identified two places that turned up significantly more often in the individuals with severe COVID-19 than in the healthy folks. One of them is found on chromosome 3 and covers a cluster of six genes with potentially relevant functions. For instance, this portion of the genome encodes a transporter protein known to interact with angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), the surface receptor that allows the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, to bind to and infect human cells. It also encodes a collection of chemokine receptors, which play a role in the immune response in the airways of our lungs.
The other association signal popped up on chromosome 9, right over the area of the genome that determines blood type. Whether you are classified as an A, B, AB, or O blood type, depends on how your genes instruct your blood cells to produce (or not produce) a certain set of proteins. The researchers did find evidence suggesting a relationship between blood type and COVID-19 risk. They noted that this area also includes a genetic variant associated with increased levels of interleukin-6, which plays a role in inflammation and may have implications for COVID-19 as well.
These findings, completed in two months under very difficult clinical conditions, clearly warrant further study to understand the implications more fully. Indeed, Franke, Karlsen, and many of their colleagues are part of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, an ongoing international collaborative effort to learn the genetic determinants of COVID-19 susceptibility, severity, and outcomes. Some NIH research groups are taking part in the initiative, and they recently launched a study to look for informative gene variants in 5,000 COVID-19 patients in the United States and Canada.
The hope is that these and other findings yet to come will point the way to a more thorough understanding of the biology of COVID-19. They also suggest that a genetic test and a person’s blood type might provide useful tools for identifying those who may be at greater risk of serious illness.
 Characteristics of and important lessons from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in China: Summary of a report of 72 314 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Wu Z, McGoogan JM, et. al. 2020 Feb 24. [published online ahead of print]
 Genomewide association study of severe Covid-19 with respiratory failure. Ellinghaus D, Degenhardt F, et. a. NEJM. June 17, 2020.
The COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative
Andre Franke (Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, Germany)
Tom Karlsen (Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet, Norway)