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?

Online dating cuts out the middlemen

This information is from a 2019 prepublication Stanford study:

“We present new data from a nationally representative 2017 survey showing that meeting online has continued to grow for heterosexual couples, and meeting through friends has continued its sharp decline. As a result of the continued rise of meeting online and the decline of meeting through friends, online has become the most popular way heterosexual couples in the U.S.

Meeting through friends and family provided guarantees that any potential partner had been personally vetted and vouched for by trusted alters. We would expect any rise in Internet dating to reinforce rather than to displace the traditional roles of friends and family as introducers and intermediaries. [Hypothesis 2]

Results reflect support of Hypothesis 1, as the percentage of heterosexual couples meeting online has surged in the post‐2009 smart phone era. Because the results show that meeting online has displaced meeting through friends and meeting through family, we find evidence to reject Hypothesis 2, which led us to expect that online dating would reinforce existing face‐to‐face social networks.”

“Figure 1’s apparent post‐2010 rise in meeting through bars and restaurants for heterosexual couples is due entirely to couples who met online and subsequently had a first in‐person meeting at a bar or restaurant or other establishment where people gather and socialize. If we exclude the couples who first met online from the bar/restaurant category, the bar/restaurant category was significantly declining after 1995 as a venue for heterosexual couples to meet.”


Are there examples where it wouldn’t potentially improve a person’s life to choose their information sources? Friends, family, and other social groups, and religious, educational, and other institutions have had their middlemen/guarantor time, and have been found lacking.

Make your own choices for your one precious life. Similar themes are explored in:

https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_et_al_Disintermediating_Friends.pdf “Disintermediating your friends”

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”

Disease and advanced glycation end products (AGEs)

This 2015 French/US review focused on chronic kidney disease, appropriate for its publication in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology:

“Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are formed not only in the presence of hyperglycemia, but also in diseases associated with high levels of oxidative stress, such as CKD. Humans are exposed to exogenous sources of AGE (diet and cigarette smoke) and endogenous sources of AGE when the organism is exposed to high levels of glucose, such as in diabetes.

Accumulation of AGEs in patients with CKD has been shown to result from inflammation, oxidative stress, and diet. AGEs are proinflammatory and pro-oxidative compounds that play a role in the high prevalence of endothelial dysfunction and subsequent cardiovascular disease in patients with CKD.

In view of the many harmful effects of AGEs on cell function, it is essential to develop strategies designed to counteract their effects. AGEs are generated during the thermal processing and storage of foods. Dietary restriction is an effective, feasible, and economic method to reduce the levels of toxic AGEs and possibly, the associated cardiovascular mortality.”


I came across the AGE subject in the usual Internet way. 🙂 While reading the comments on Josh Mitteldorf’s blog post Money in Aging Research, Part I, Dr. Alan Green mentioned Dr. Helen Vlassara’s work on the subject. A DuckDuckGo search led to her 31,708 citations the first day I checked. That number increases every day.

Another read on the subject is her 2016 book Dr. Vlassara’s AGE-Less Diet: How a Chemical in the Foods We Eat Promotes Disease, Obesity, and Aging and the Steps We Can Take to Stop It. A practical guide is her 2017 book The AGE Food Guide: A Quick Reference to Foods and the AGEs They Contain.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281281887_Uremic_Toxicity_of_Advanced_Glycation_End_Products_in_CKD “Uremic Toxicity of Advanced Glycation End Products in CKD” (registration required)

A therapy to reverse cognitive decline

This 2018 human study presented the results of 100 patients’ personalized therapies for cognitive decline:

“The first examples of reversal of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease and the pre-Alzheimer’s disease conditions MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) and SCI (Subjective Cognitive Impairment) have recently been published..showing sustained subjective and objective improvement in cognition, using a comprehensive, precision medicine approach that involves determining the potential contributors to the cognitive decline (e.g., activation of the innate immune system by pathogens or intestinal permeability, reduction in trophic or hormonal support, specific toxin exposure, or other contributors), using a computer-based algorithm to determine subtype and then addressing each contributor using a personalized, targeted, multi-factorial approach dubbed ReCODE for reversal of cognitive decline.

An obvious criticism of the initial studies is the small number of patients reported. Therefore, we report here 100 patients, treated by several different physicians, with documented improvement in cognition, in some cases with documentation of improvement in electrophysiology or imaging, as well.”

https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/reversal-of-cognitive-decline-100-patients-2161-0460-1000450-105387.html “Reversal of Cognitive Decline: 100 Patients”


The lead author commented on Josh Mitteldorf’s informative post A cure for Alzheimer’s? Yes, a cure for Alzheimer’s!:

  1. “We have a paper in press, due to appear 10.22.18 (open access, JADP, I’ll send a copy as soon as available), showing 100 patients with documented improvement – some with MRI volumetrics improved, others with quantitative EEG improvements, others with evoked response improvements, and all with quantitative cognitive assessment improvement. Some are very striking – 12 point improvements in MoCA [Montreal Cognitive Assessment], for example – others less so, but all also have subjective improvement. Hopefully this will address some of the criticisms that we haven’t documented improvement in enough people.
  2. We were just turned down again for a randomized, controlled clinical trial, so on the one hand, we are told repeatedly that no one will believe that this approach works until we publish a randomized, controlled study, and on the other hand, we’ve been turned down (first in 2011/12, and now in 2018), with the complaint that we are trying to address more than one variable in the trial (as if AD is a single-variable disease!). Something of a catch-22. We are now resubmitting (unfortunately, the IRBs are not populated by functional medicine physicians, so they are used to seeing old-fashioned drug studies), and we’ll see what happens.
  3. I’ve been extending the studies to other neurodegenerative diseases, and it has been impressive how much of a programmatic response there seems to be in these “diseases.”
  4. I agree with you that there are many features in common with aging itself.
  5. You made a good point that APP [amyloid precursor protein] is a dependence receptor, and in fact it functions as an integrating dependence receptor, responding to numerous inputs (Kurakin and Bredesen, 2015).
  6. In the book and the publications, we don’t claim it is a “cure” since we don’t have pathological evidence that the disease process is gone. What we claim is “reversal of cognitive decline” since that is what we document.
  7. As I mentioned in the book, AD is turning out to be a protective response to multiple insults, and this fits well with the finding that Abeta has an antimicrobial effect (Moir and Tanzi’s work). It is a network-downsizing, protective response, which is quite effective – some people live with the ongoing degenerative process for decades.
  8. We have seen several cases now in which a clinical trial of an anti-amyloid antibody made the person much worse in a time-dependent manner (each time there was an injection, the person would get much worse for 5-10 days, then begin to improve back toward where he/she was, but over time, marked decline occurred), and this makes sense for the idea that the amyloid is actually protecting against pathogens or toxins or some other insult.
  9. It is important to note that we’ve never claimed that all people get better – this is not what we’ve seen. People very late in the process, or who don’t follow the protocol, or who don’t address the various insults, do not improve. It is also turning out to be practitioner dependent – some are getting the vast majority of people to improve, others very few, so this is more like surgery than old-fashioned prescriptive medicine – you have to do a somewhat complicated therapeutic algorithm and get it right for best results.
  10. I’m very interested in what is needed to take the next step in people who have shown improvement but who started late in the course. For example, we have people now who have increased MoCA from 0 to 9 (or 0 to 3, etc.), with marked subjective improvement but plateauing at less than normal. These people had extensive synaptic and cellular loss prior to the program. So what do we need to raise the plateau? Stem cells? Intranasal trophic support? Something else?
  11. I haven’t yet seen a mono-etiologic theory of AD or a mono-therapeutic approach that has repeatedly positive results, so although I understand that there are many theories and treatments, there doesn’t seem to be one etiology to the disease, nor does there seem to be one simple treatment that works for most. It is much more like a network failure.”

At a specific level:

  • “There doesn’t seem to be one etiology to the disease,
  • nor does there seem to be one simple treatment that works for most.
  • We don’t have pathological evidence that the disease process is gone.”

For general concepts, however:

  • “AD is turning out to be a protective response to multiple insults,
  • It is a network-downsizing, protective response, which is quite effective.
  • The amyloid is actually protecting against pathogens or toxins or some other insult.”

For a framework of an AD cure to be valid, each source of each insult that evoked each “protective response” should be traced.

Longitudinal studies would be preferred inside this framework. These study designs would investigate evidence of each insult’s potential modifying effect on each “protective response” that could affect the cumulative disease trajectory of each individual.

In many cases, existing study designs would be adequate if they extended their periods to the end of the subjects’ natural lifetimes. One AD-relevant example would be extending the prenatally-restraint-stressed model used in:

The framework would also encourage extending studies to at least three generations to investigate evidence for transgenerational effects, as were found in: