Dr. Ludovic Desvignes PhD.
Assistant Professor, Departments of Medicine and Pathology
NYU Langone Medical Center
MedicalResearch: What is the background for this study?
Dr. Desvignes: This study is the result of a collaboration at NYU Langone Medical Center, between the laboratories of Dr. Stefan Feske and Dr. Joel Ernst, my mentor. Dr. Feske and colleagues had developed a mouse model of rare, inherited mutations he had identified in infants. These mutations occur in the genes for STIM1 and ORAI1, which are crucial for calcium flux in cells of the immune system. The young patients affected by these mutations suffer from severe, recurrent and chronic infections that often cause death before their first birthday. In particular, some of these patients cannot control infection with BCG, which is a normally innocuous strain of mycobacteria administered to protect against tuberculosis (TB). TB is a chronic infection and one of the leading causes of infection-related death worldwide. Going into this study, Dr. Feske and colleagues knew that without functional calcium channels, immune cells do not function properly. However, they did not fully understand how these channels contribute to immune responses to infectious pathogens in a living organism and in particular, for pathogens that cause chronic infections such as TB. This is why Dr. Ernst and I collaborated with Dr. Feske and provided him with our clinical and research expertise in TB.
MedicalResearch: What are the main findings?
Dr. Desvignes: Dr. Feske’s mice are genetically engineered to lack STIM1 in a certain type of immune cells, known as T cells or T lymphocytes. We infected these mice with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium causing TB. Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes chronic infection by manipulating the immune system even in healthy people. The first very surprising result of our study was that mice lacking calcium flux in T cells handled acute TB fairly well. Only during the chronic phase of infection did they become unable to control mycobacterial growth and developed a strong inflammation in their lungs, which was due to an infiltration by different types of immune cells, including T cells. We discovered that the accumulation of STIM1-deficient T cells in the lungs resulted from the cells’ inability to die, which is a normal mechanism to limit an immune response and prevent excessive inflammation.
Another immune control mechanism that failed in the absence of STIM1 is mediated by a subset of T cells called induced regulatory T cells, or iTreg cells. These cells are essential to prevent normal immune responses from going “overboard” by suppressing the functions of other immune cells, including T cells. We found that calcium signals are required for the development of iTreg cells and that their numbers were strongly reduced in the lungs of infected STIM1-deficient mice. We therefore think that the lack of iTreg cells in the absence of STIM1 contributes to the severe lung inflammation in chronic TB.
The third finding that really surprised us was that T cells accumulating in the lungs of STIM1-deficient mice produced large amounts of a protein called interferon gamma. While interferon gamma is required to control Mycobacterium tuberculosis, it is also a very potent promoter of inflammation and too much of it can lead to tissue damage. Dr. Feske and colleagues had previously observed that calcium fluxes promote the production of interferon gamma in T cells cultured in vitro and we expected the STIM1-deficient T cells to be defective in the production of that protein. During chronic TB, however, calcium signaling turned out to be not only dispensable for the production of interferon gamma by T cells but it was actually required to limit its production and thus, to control inflammation.