Researchers discover new T cells, genes related to immune disorders

Researchers discover new T cells, genes related to immune disorders
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Tokyo, Japan: A team of researchers has identified a number of uncommon helper T cell subtypes that are linked to immune conditions like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

The research done by Yasuhiro Murakawa's team of researchers at the RIKEN Center for Integrative Medical Sciences (IMS), Kyoto University in Japan, and IFOM ETS in Italy. The findings, which were published in Science, were made feasible by a recently created technique known as ReapTEC, which found genetic enhancers in uncommon T cell subtypes connected to particular immunological illnesses. Publicly accessible, the updated T cell atlas should aid in the creation of novel pharmacological treatments for immune-mediated illnesses.

Helper T cells are kind of white blood cell that make up a large part of the immune system. They recognize pathogens and regulate the immune response. Many immune-mediated disease are caused by abnormal T cell function. In autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, they mistakenly attack parts of the body as if they were pathogens. In the case of allergies, T cells overreact to harmless substances in the environment like pollen. We know of several common T cells, but recent studies have shown that rare and specialized types of T cells exist, and they might be related to immune-mediated diseases.

Within all cells, including T cells, there are regions of DNA called "enhancers". This DNA does not code for proteins. Instead, it codes for small pieces of RNA, and enhances the expression of other genes. Variations in T cell enhancer DNA therefore lead to differences in gene expression, and this can affect how T cells function. Some enhancers are bidirectional, which means that both strands of the DNA are used as templates for enhancer RNA. The researchers from several different laboratories at RIKEN IMS, as well as colleagues at other institutes, teamed up to develop the new ReapTEC technology and look for connections between bidirectional T cell enhancers and immune diseases.

After analyzing about a million human T cells, they found several groups of rare T cell types, accounting for less than 5% of the total. Applying ReapTEC to these cells identified almost 63,000 active bidirectional enhancers. To figure out if any of these enhancers are related to immune diseases, they turned to genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which have reported numerous genetic variants, called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, that are related to various immune diseases.

When the researchers combined the GWAS data with the results of their ReapTEC analysis, they found that genetic variants for immune-mediated diseases were often located within the bidirectional enhancer DNA of the rare T cells that they had identified. In contrast, genetic variants for neurological diseases did not show a similar pattern, meaning that the bidirectional enhancers in these rare T cells are related specifically to immune-mediated diseases.

Going even deeper into the data, the researchers were able to show that individual enhancers in certain rare T cells are related to specific immune diseases. Overall, among the 63,000 bidirectional enhancers, they were able to identify 606 that included single-nucleotide polymorphisms related to 18 immune-mediated diseases. Lastly, the researchers were able to identify some of the genes that are the targets of these disease-related enhancers. For example, when they activated an enhancer that contained a genetic variant related to inflammatory bowel disease, the resulting enhancer RNA triggered upregulation of the IL7R gene.

"In the short-term, we have developed a new genomics method that can be used by researchers around the world," says Murakawa. "Using this method, we discovered new types of helper T cells as well as genes related to immune disorders. We hope that this knowledge will lead to a better understanding of the genetic mechanisms underlying human immune-mediated diseases."