Molecular Mechanisms of CD8+ T Cell Differentiation

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Molecular Mechanisms of CD8+ T Cell Differentiation

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Title: Molecular Mechanisms of CD8+ T Cell Differentiation
Author: Godec, Jernej ORCID  0000-0002-3154-1403
Citation: Godec, Jernej. 2016. Molecular Mechanisms of CD8+ T Cell Differentiation. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: CD8+ T cells are a crucial component of the adaptive immune system and are required for optimal protection from most pathogens and cancer. They function by secreting pro-inflammatory cytokines and by directly eliminating infected and malignant cells. In order to be effective, CD8+ T cells must be activated through a complex sequence of steps involving engagement of the antigen-specific T cell receptor (TCR) and other receptors, which orchestrate transcriptional, epigenetic, and metabolic changes that direct the differentiation of the responding cells. Following optimal activation, naive CD8+ T cells rapidly undergo clonal expansion and effector differentiation that enables prompt resolution of infection. Following pathogen clearance, a fraction of effector CD8+ T cells differentiate into long-lived memory CD8+ T cells that provide robust protection from re-challenge with the same microbe. However, in the context of persistent abundance of antigen and inflammation, such as in chronic infections and in cancer, the T cells instead become gradually more dysfunctional – a state known as T cell exhaustion.

The overarching goal of this thesis is to identify the cardinal features and molecular mechanisms associated with three main states in which CD8+ T cells exist: T cell memory, T cell exhaustion, and T cell effector differentiation. I used two complementary approaches to examine CD8+ T cells at the different states in vivo. First, I used classical immunology techniques including knockout mice and cellular phenotypic analyses to examine the role of cell surface molecules PD-1 and CD39 on CD8+ T cells in the context of memory and exhaustion, respectively. Secondly, I developed a novel experimental platform that enables gene perturbation in naive CD8+ T cells in vivo during their differentiation. I used this approach to systematically interrogate the transcriptional programming of activated CD8+ T cells and to identify novel regulators of effector differentiation. In a proof of concept study, I used this system to further define how the transcription factor BATF regulates CD8+ T cell activation. Additionally, I used this experimental platform to systematically interrogate the functional role of a set of ~80 transcription factors in CD8+ T cell differentiation, and identified TGIF1 as a novel regulator of this process.

The role of the co-inhibitory receptor PD-1 on CD8+ T was examined in mice using an acute respiratory infection model. PD-1 is a co-inhibitory receptor that is up-regulated on T cells following activation and recruits SHP1/2 phosphatases to directly antagonize signals through the TCR and this way inhibit the activation of T cells. It is down-regulated following the resolution of an acute infection but remains persistently expressed on CD8+ T cells in chronic infections and cancer. As such, PD-1 has been exhaustively studied for its contribution to the functional exhaustion of T cells. However, its role in acute infections remains less defined. We found that this receptor prevents over-activation and over-expansion of CD8+ T cells following initial differentiation, and is crucial for optimal differentiation of effector CD8+ T cells into functional memory cells.

Exhausted CD8+ T cells express several markers distinctive of the state. Some, like PD-1, Tim-3, and Lag-3 are well known. However, genome-wide transcriptional studies identified numerous additional genes that are differentially expressed in the exhausted state. Thus, we hypothesized that additional markers may provide characteristic features of the exhausted cell state and may function in chronic infections. We investigated one such gene – ENTPD1 – that encodes for CD39. This cell surface molecule is an ectonucleotidase that hydrolyzes extracellular ATP into ADP and AMP, which can be further broken down to immunosuppressive adenosine by CD73. In the context of the immune system, CD39 has largely been studied on CD4+ regulatory T cells, which use CD39 as a mechanism to suppress immune responses. However, surprisingly, we found that CD8+ T cells can also express CD39, but its expression is largely restricted to terminally exhausted CD8+ T cells. These cells are most dysfunctional as measured by the most limited proliferative capacity and ability to produce pro-inflammatory cytokines. We have observed this biology in both human and mouse chronic viral infections. Additional studies further demonstrated the importance of CD39 and the purinergic pathway in regulating lethal immunopathology associated with chronic LCMV infection in mice.

In addition to interrogating memory and exhaustion fates of CD8+ T cells, we also examined the initial regulatory programs involved in CD8+ T cell differentiation in vivo through gene silencing. Gene perturbation in naive T cells without prior cellular stimulation has been a continuous challenge in the field. To circumvent this limitation, we engineered a novel experimental platform that enables inducible gene knock-down in any immune cell in mice in vivo without prior manipulation of these cells. Initially, I validated this system by knocking down BATF and confirmed its essential role in CD8+ T cell responses to acute LCMV infection. Additionally, leveraging the inducible nature of the platform, I showed that BATF functions in the early stages of T cell activation but becomes dispensable once its transcriptional program is initiated.

Several other transcription factors such as T-bet, Eomes, Bcl6, and Blimp-1 have been described to regulate CD8+ T cell differentiation. However, numerous additional transcription factors may function in this process based on their rapid up-regulation following T cell activation. I used the novel platform to systematically test the functional relevance of ~80 additional transcription factors in a pooled setting. These experiments identified several novel candidate regulators of this process. We validated one such gene – Tgif1 – to confirm its role in the effector CD8+ T cell differentiation following acute LCMV infection and provide clues to the potential mechanism in which it may function.

The above projects have benefited significantly from genome-wide transcriptional datasets of cells at various states or of different genotypes that we generated or that originate from published studies. One particularly powerful approach to examine differences between different groups is gene set enrichment analysis (GSEA) that examines coordinate up- or down-regulation of sets of genes rather than assessing differential expression of specific genes. This is particularly important because changes in biological processes are often guided by relative small changes of groups of genes that act in concert rather than by a robust expression change of a single gene. This approach, however, is only informative if a relevant gene-set collection is used to analyze the data. Existing collections are largely centered around cancer biology and general biological processes but no extensive gene-set collection existed that contained information describing immune processes. Thus, we created ImmuneSigDB – the largest collection of immunology-focused gene sets to date by identifying, annotating, and reanalyzing ~400 published immunology studies. To show its broad use, we used it to examine the cross-species conservation of transcriptional responses in the immune system. We focused on analyzing transcriptional data from systemic responses to sepsis using GSEA and a novel approach, called leading edge metagene analysis. Using these approaches, we uncovered shared and species-specific biology in mouse and human transcriptional responses to sepsis.

Deciphering CD8+ T cell biology is key for conceptualizing new medical interventions that may boost their activation, memory development, and rejuvenation from functional exhaustion. We have determined that PD-1 is essential for optimal CD8+ T cell memory responses, and that BATF is a key transcription factor initiating effector T cell transcriptional programming. We also identified CD39 as a new marker of terminally exhausted CD8+ T cells and uncovered a key role for purinergic signaling in regulating lethal immunopathology in LCMV Clone 13 infection in mice. Furthermore, we developed a new experimental platform that enables systematic interrogation of gene function in any hematopoietic cell type by inducible knock-down of genes and identified TGIF1 as a novel negative regulator of CD8+ T cell responses. We have also developed a new computational resource to improve analyses of transcriptional profiles in the immune system. Together, the body of work presented in this thesis advances our knowledge of major states of CD8+ T cell biology, uncovering both novel mechanisms underlying CD8+ T cell function, as well as highlighting potential novel therapeutic targets that may be transformative in creating better vaccines, treating infections, or fighting cancer.
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