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The epigenetic landscape of T cell exhaustion

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Science  02 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6316, pp. 1165-1169
DOI: 10.1126/science.aae0491

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The epigenetics of exhaustion

During cancer or chronic infection, T cells become dysfunctional, eventually acquiring an “exhausted” phenotype. Immunotherapies aim to reverse this state. Using a mouse model of chronic infection, two studies now show that the epigenetic profile of exhausted T cells differs substantially from those of effector and memory T cells, suggesting that exhausted T cells are a distinct lineage (see the Perspective by Turner and Russ). Sen et al. defined specific functional modules of enhancers that are also conserved in exhausted human T cells. Pauken et al. examined the epigenetic profile of exhausted T cells after immunotherapy. Although there was transcriptional rewiring, the cells never acquired a memory T cell phenotype. Thus, epigenetic regulation may limit the success of immunotherapies.

Science, this issue p. 1104, p. 1165; see also p. 1160

Abstract

Exhausted T cells in cancer and chronic viral infection express distinctive patterns of genes, including sustained expression of programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1). However, the regulation of gene expression in exhausted T cells is poorly understood. Here, we define the accessible chromatin landscape in exhausted CD8+ T cells and show that it is distinct from functional memory CD8+ T cells. Exhausted CD8+ T cells in humans and a mouse model of chronic viral infection acquire a state-specific epigenetic landscape organized into functional modules of enhancers. Genome editing shows that PD-1 expression is regulated in part by an exhaustion-specific enhancer that contains essential RAR, T-bet, and Sox3 motifs. Functional enhancer maps may offer targets for genome editing that alter gene expression preferentially in exhausted CD8+ T cells.

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