Scientists at the Emory Vaccine Center and The Scripps Research Institute have found a way to identify which of the T cells generated after a viral infection can persist and confer protective immunity. Because these long-lived cells protect against reinfection by "remembering" the prior pathogen, they are called memory T cells. This discovery about the specific mechanisms of long-term immunity could help scientists develop more effective vaccines against challenging infections.
The research, by Susan M. Kaech, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine, and principal investigator Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Eminent Scholar, was published online November 16 and will be printed in the December issue of Nature Immunology. Other members of the research team were E. John Wherry and Bogumila T. Konieczny of Emory University School of Medicine, and Joyce T. Tan and Charles D. Surh of The Scripps Research Institute.
During an acute viral infection, CD4 and CD8 T cells activated by specific viral antigens dramatically expand in number and become effector T cells. These cells kill the virus-infected cells and also produce cytokines. Most effector cells die within a few weeks, after their initial job is complete. Only about 5 to 10 percent survive to become long-term memory cells, which are capable of mounting a strong and rapid immune response when they come into contact with the original virus, even years later. Scientists have not clearly understood the mechanisms of memory cell production, and a major unanswered question has been how to distinguish the small fraction of cells likely to survive in long-term memory.
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