Reversing epigenetic T cell exhaustion

This 2019 worldwide discussion among 18 experts concerned T cell exhaustion:

“‘T cell exhaustion’ is a broad term that has been used to describe the response of T cells to chronic antigen stimulation, first in the setting of chronic viral infection but more recently in response to tumours.

Key questions remain about the potential to reverse the epigenetic programme of exhaustion and how this might affect the persistence of T cell populations.”


There were nearly a dozen viewpoints on even “What do we mean by T cell exhaustion and/or dysfunction and how would you define this state?” 🙂

Answers to the question “What are the key controversies and outstanding research questions?” included:

  • “What are the cellular signalling and transcriptional pathways that drive the conversion to an exhausted T cell phenotype, and how can the chromatin and transcriptional changes of exhaustion be reversed in individual exhausted cells?
  • Whether and how we can manipulate signalling pathways to both activate and maintain T cell responses remain open questions, as does the question of whether pharmacological manipulations can reverse the epigenetic changes associated with exhaustion versus expand less-exhausted populations.
  • We need to define better the effects of the microenvironment on the induction of T cell exhaustion, the developmental trajectories of exhaustion and the point at which and extent to which exhaustion can be reversed. Understanding the consequences of unleashing T cells from exhaustion will also be crucial to designing the most effective therapeutic interventions.
  • When and how exhausted T cell populations are formed. The original view that they are terminally differentiated descendants of formerly ‘normal’ effector T cells has been challenged.
  • Whether the predysfunctional T cells themselves, or their more differentiated (and phenotypically dysfunctional) progeny, form the ultimate effector pool for control of human tumours.
  • How do the functions and states (subpopulations) of exhausted T cells change over time? Can the epigenetic state of exhaustion be reversed to form true effector or memory T cells, and is this required for improved cancer immunotherapy?
  • There is no definitive marker for exhausted T cells, although TOX may prove to be useful. Transcriptional profiles are informative, but epigenetic changes are more specific and robust. A major clinical question is whether exhausted T cells can be, or indeed need to be, reprogrammed to achieve therapeutic benefit.”

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-019-0221-9 “Defining ‘T cell exhaustion'” (not freely available)

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This 2019 Finnish review focused on vitamin D’s immune system effects:

“The epigenome of human monocytes is at multiple levels sensitive to vitamin D. These data served as the basis for the chromatin model of vitamin D signaling, which mechanistically explains the activation of a few hundred primary vitamin D target genes.

Vitamin D and its receptor are able to antagonize the pro-inflammatory actions of the transcription factors nuclear factor activated T cells (NF-AT) and nuclear factor κ-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-κB) in T cells. In this way, vitamin D reduces autoimmunity, such as the onset and progression of multiple sclerosis, as well as chronic inflammation.

Population-wide recommendations do not take inter-individual variations into account, such as a different molecular response to vitamin D, which are expressed by the vitamin D response index. Instead of population-based recommendations for vitamin D3 supplementation there should be personalized recommendations in order to reach a vitamin D status that is optimized for an individual’s health protection.

Trained immunity implies that immune cells memorize challenges, to which they are exposed in their rather short lifespan, in form of changes of their epigenome leading to subtype specification. The stabilization of the epigenomes of the subtypes of monocytes, macrophages and dendritic cells by vitamin D can prevent or delay the onset of common age-related diseases.”


One of the five elements of the clinical trial Reversal of aging and immunosenescent trends was daily 3,000 IU vitamin D3 supplementation for nine months. That study’s monocyte findings included:

“Analysis of CyTOF‐defined immune cell populations revealed the most robust changes to be decreases in total and CD38‐positive monocytes and resulting increases in the lymphocyte‐to‐monocyte ratio (LMR). The changes in mean monocyte populations persisted 6 months after discontinuation of treatment, and the increase in LMR remained highly significant at 18 months as well.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6753645/ “Vitamin D Signaling in the Context of Innate Immunity: Focus on Human Monocytes”

Too cheap for clinical trials

Let’s compare and contrast a 2019 meta-analysis and a 2017 review of using acetyl-L-carnitine to treat diabetic neuropathy.

A 2019 Brazilian meta-analysis Acetyl‐L‐carnitine for the treatment of diabetic peripheral neuropathy of four previous trials stated:

  • “The risk of bias was high in both trials of different ALC doses and low in the other two trials.
  • No included trial measured the proportion of participants with at least moderate (30%) or substantial (50%) pain relief.
  • At doses greater than 1500 mg/day, ALC reduced pain more than placebo. This subgroup analysis should be viewed with caution as the evidence was even less certain than the overall analysis, which was already of very low certainty.
  • The placebo-controlled studies did not measure functional impairment and disability scores.
  • No study used validated symptom scales.
  • Two studies were funded by the manufacturer of ALC and the other two studies had at least one co-author who was a consultant for an ALC manufacturer.

Authors’ conclusions:

  • We are very uncertain whether ALC causes a reduction in pain after 6 to 12 months treatment in people with DPN, when compared with placebo, as the evidence is sparse and of low certainty.
  • Data on functional and sensory impairment and symptoms are lacking, or of very low certainty.
  • The evidence on adverse events is too uncertain to make any judgements on safety.”

A 2017 Italian review Effects of acetyl-L-carnitine in diabetic neuropathy and other geriatric disorders stated:

“A long history of diabetes mellitus and increasing age are associated with the onset of diabetic neuropathy, a painful and highly disabling complication with a prevalence peaking at 50% among elderly diabetic patients. The management of diabetic neuropathy is extremely difficult: in addition to the standard analgesics used for pain control, common treatments include opioids, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and local anesthetics, alone or in combination. Such therapies still show a variable, often limited efficacy, however.

Many patients do not spontaneously report their symptoms to physicians, but, if asked, they often describe having experienced a persistent and non-abating pain for many years. The prevalence of painful symptoms is just as high in patients with mild neuropathy as in those with more advanced DPN.

Through the donation of acetyl groups, ALC exerts a positive action on mitochondrial energy metabolism. ALC has cytoprotective, antioxidant, and antiapoptotic effects in the nervous system.

ALC has also been proposed for the treatment of other neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as mood disorders and depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, given that synaptic energy states and mitochondrial dysfunctions are core factors in their pathogenesis. Compared to other treatments, ALC is safe and extremely well tolerated.”

“In nerve injury, the mGlu2 receptor overexpressed by ALC binds the glutamate, reducing its concentration in the synapses with an analgesic effect. ALC may improve nerve regeneration and damage repair after primary nerve trauma.”


Where will the money come from to realize what the 2017 review promised, as well as provide what the 2019 meta-analysis required?

Do we prefer the current “limited efficacy” treatments of “opioids, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and local anesthetics?”

Who will initiate clinical trials of a multiple of the normal dietary supplement dose (500 mg at $.25 a day, retail)? How profitable is a product whose hypothetical effective dosage for diabetic neuropathy (3000 mg) sells for only $1.50 a day?

Perinatal stress and sex differences in circadian activity

This 2019 French/Italian rodent study used the PRS model to investigate its effects on circadian activity:

“The aim of this study was to explore the influence of PRS on the circadian oscillations of gene expression in the SCN [suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus] and on circadian locomotor behavior, in a sex-dependent manner.

Research on transcriptional rhythms has shown that more than half of all genes in the human and rodent genome follow a circadian pattern. We focused on genes belonging to four functional classes, namely the circadian clock, HPA axis stress response regulation, signaling and glucose metabolism in male and female adult PRS rats.

Our findings provide evidence for a specific profile of dysmasculinization induced by PRS at the behavioral and molecular level, thus advocating the necessity to include sex as a biological variable to study the set-up of circadian system in animal models.”

“There was a clear-cut effect of sex on the effect of PRS on the levels of activity:

  • During the period of lower activity (light phase), both CONT and PRS females were more active than males. During the light phase, PRS increased activity in males, which reached levels of CONT females.
  • More interestingly, during the period of activity (dark phase), male PRS rats were more active than male CONT rats. In contrast, female PRS rats were less active than CONT females.
  • During the dark phase, CONT female rats were less active than CONT male rats.

The study presented evidence for sex differences in circadian activity of first generation offspring that was caused by stress experienced by the pregnant mother:

“Exposure to gestational stress and altered maternal behavior programs a life-long disruption in the reactive adaptation such as:

  •  A hyperactive response to stress and
  • A defective feedback of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis together with
  • Long-lasting modifications in stress/anti-stress gene expression balance in the hippocampus.”

It would advance science if these researchers carried out experiments to two more generations to investigate possible transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of effects caused by PRS. What intergenerational and transgenerational effects would they possibly find by taking a few more months and extending research efforts to F2 and F3 generations? Wouldn’t these findings likely help humans?


One aspect of the study was troubling. One of the marginally-involved coauthors was funded by the person described in How one person’s paradigms regarding stress and epigenetics impedes relevant research. Although no part of the current study was sponsored by that person, there were three gratuitous citations of their work.

All three citations were reviews. Unlike study researchers, reviewers aren’t bound to demonstrate evidence from tested hypotheses. Reviewers are free to:

  • Express their beliefs as facts;
  • Over/under emphasize study limitations; and
  • Disregard and misrepresent evidence as they see fit.

Fair or not, comparisons of reviews with Cochrane meta-analyses of the same subjects consistently show the extent of reviewers’ biases. Reviewers also aren’t obligated to make post-publication corrections for their errors and distortions.

As such, reviews can’t be cited for reliable evidence. Higher-quality studies that were more relevant and recent than a 1993 review could have elucidated points.

Sucking up to the boss and endorsing their paradigm was predictable. Since that coauthor couldn’t constrain themself to funder citations only in funder studies, it was the other coauthors’ responsibilities to edit out unnecessary citations.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnmol.2019.00089/full “Perinatal Stress Programs Sex Differences in the Behavioral and Molecular Chronobiological Profile of Rats Maintained Under a 12-h Light-Dark Cycle”

Caloric restriction’s epigenetic effects

This 2019 US review subject was caloric restriction (CR) without malnutrition:

“Cellular adaptation that occurs in response to dietary patterns can be explained by alterations in epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNA. Epigenetic reprogramming of the underlying chronic low-grade inflammation by CR can lead to immuno-metabolic adaptations that enhance quality of life, extend lifespan, and delay chronic disease onset.

Short- and long-term CRs produce significant changes in different tissues and across species, in some animal models even with sex-specific effects. Early CR onset may cause a different and even an opposite effect on physiological outcomes in animal models such as body weight.”

 


1. Charts usually don’t have two different values plotted on the same axis. There wasn’t evidence that equated survival with methylation drift per the above graphic. Methylation drift should point in the opposite direction of survival, if anything.

2. No mention was made of the epigenetic clock method of measuring age acceleration, although it’s been available since 2013 and recent diet studies have used it. The sole citation of an age acceleration study was from 2001, which was unacceptable for a review published in 2019.

3. The review provided many cellular-level details about the subject. However, organism-level areas weren’t sufficiently evidenced:

A. Arguments for an effect usually include explanations for no effect as well as opposite effects. The reviewers didn’t provide direct evidence for why, if caloric restriction extended lifespan, caloric overabundance produced shorter lifespans.

B. Caloric restriction evidence was presented as if only it was responsible for organism-level effects. Other mechanisms may have been involved.

An example of such a mechanism was demonstrated in a 2007 rodent study Reduced Oxidant Stress and Extended Lifespan in Mice Exposed to a Low Glycotoxin Diet which compared two 40%-calorie-restricted diets.

The calories and composition of both diets were identical. However, advanced glycation end product (AGE) levels were doubled in standard chow because heating temperatures were “sufficiently high to inadvertently cause standard mouse chow to be rich in oxidant AGEs.”

The study found that a diet with lower chow heating temperatures increased lifespan and health span irrespective of caloric restriction!

  • The low-AGE calorie-restricted diet group lived an average of 15% longer (>20 human equivalent years) than the CR group.
  • 40% of the low-AGE calorie-restricted diet group were still alive when the last CR group member died.
  • The CR group also had significantly more: 1) oxidative stress damage; 2) glucose and insulin metabolism problems; and 3) kidney, spleen, and liver injuries.

https://academic.oup.com/advances/article-abstract/10/3/520/5420411 “Epigenetic Regulation of Metabolism and Inflammation by Calorie Restriction” (not freely available)

A drug that countered effects of a traumatizing mother

This 2019 US rodent study concerned transmitting poor maternal care to the next generation:

“The quality of parental care received during development profoundly influences an individual’s phenotype, including that of maternal behavior. Infant experiences with a caregiver have lifelong behavioral consequences.

Maternal behavior is a complex behavior requiring the recruitment of multiple brain regions including the nucleus accumbens, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, ventral tegmental area, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and medial preoptic area. Dysregulation within this circuitry can lead to altered or impaired maternal responsiveness.

We administered zebularine, a drug known to alter DNA methylation, to dams exposed during infancy to the scarcity-adversity model of low nesting resources, and then characterized the quality of their care towards their offspring.

  1. We replicate that dams with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring.
  2. We show that maltreated-dams treated with zebularine exhibit lower levels of adverse care toward their offspring.
  3. We show that administration of zebularine in control dams (history of nurturing care) enhances levels of adverse care.
  4. We show altered methylation and gene expression in maltreated dams normalized by zebularine.

These findings lend support to the hypothesis that epigenetic alterations resulting from maltreatment causally relate to behavioral outcomes.”


“Maternal behavior is an intergenerational behavior. It is important to establish the neurobiological underpinnings of aberrant maternal behavior and explore treatments that can improve maternal behavior to prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations.”

The study authors demonstrated intergenerational epigenetic effects, and missed an opportunity to also investigate transgenerational epigenetically inherited effects. They cited reference 60 for the first part of the above quotation, but that reviewer misused the transgenerational term by applying it to grand-offspring instead of the great-grand-offspring.

There were resources available to replicate the study authors’ previous findings, which didn’t show anything new. Why not use such resources to uncover evidence even more applicable to humans by extending experiments to great-grand-offspring that have no potential germline exposure to the initial damaging cause?

Could a study design similar to A limited study of parental transmission of anxiety/stress-reactive traits have been integrated? That study’s thorough removal of parental behavior would be an outstanding methodology to confirm by falsifiability whether parental behavior is both an intergenerational and a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanism.

Rodent great-grand-offspring can be studied in < 9 months. It takes > 50 years for human studies to reach the transgenerational generation. Why not attempt to “prevent the perpetuation of poor maternal care across generations?”

Isn’t it a plausible hypothesis that humans “with a history of maltreatment mistreat their own offspring?” Isn’t it worth the extra effort to extend animal research to investigate this unfortunate chain?

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-46539-4 “Pharmacological manipulation of DNA methylation normalizes maternal behavior, DNA methylation, and gene expression in dams with a history of maltreatment”

A better method of measuring neurogenesis

One of the references cited in Linking adult neurogenesis to Alzheimer’s disease was https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-019-0375-9 “Adult hippocampal neurogenesis is abundant in neurologically healthy subjects and drops sharply in patients with Alzheimer’s disease” (not freely available).

This 2019 Spanish human study used improved techniques to find:

“Adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN), confers an unparalleled degree of plasticity to the entire hippocampal circuitry. Direct evidence of AHN in humans has remained elusive. Determining whether new neurons are continuously incorporated into the human dentate gyrus (DG) during physiological and pathological aging is a crucial question with outstanding therapeutic potential.

By combining human brain samples obtained under tightly controlled conditions and state-of-the-art tissue processing methods, we identified thousands of immature neurons in the DG of neurologically healthy human subjects up to the ninth decade of life. These neurons exhibited variable degrees of maturation along differentiation stages of AHN. In sharp contrast, the number and maturation of these neurons progressively declined as AD advanced.

These results demonstrate the persistence of AHN during both physiological and pathological aging in humans and provide evidence for impaired neurogenesis as a potentially relevant mechanism underlying memory deficits in AD that might be amenable to novel therapeutic strategies.”


The control group was 13 neurologically healthy deceased people aged 43 to 87. The AD group was 45 deceased people, distributed among the six Braak stages of the pathology, aged 52 to 97.