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