In vivo injection of mRNA triggers immune responses to the encoded proteins, and confers protection against disease. For this and other reasons, outlined below, RNA vaccines have great clinical potential, so it is important that we understand how they induce immunity. I hypothesize that RNA vaccines may be exploiting a biological pathway that has evolved specifically to capture, internalize, and translate mRNA. I propose that this pathway facilitates the transfer of immunological information into uninfected dendritic cells (DCs), thereby playing a key part in regulating CD8+ T cell responses to many viral and bacterial infections. Almost all acute virus infections induce strong CD8+ T cell responses, which are initiated when na?ve CD8+ T cells are activated by contact with an MHC class I / epitope peptide complex on the surface of DCs that express appropriate costimulatory molecules. However, many viruses do not infect DCs;and some viruses that infect DCs also encode proteins that quite effectively inhibit MHC class I presentation. These facts posed a puzzle: how could epitopes encoded by these viruses be effectively presented by DCs? The answer came with the identification of cross-presentation which, if it results in the triggering of naive CD8+ T cells, causes cross-priming. However, two in vivo observations show that cross-presentation/cross-priming (hereinafter, CP) is not always highly-efficient. First, enteroviruses replicate to very high titers and induce CD4+ T cells and antibodies, yet (unique among acute virus infections) they completely avoid triggering na?ve CD8+ T cells. Second, extracellular bacterial infections, in which microbial protein is hugely abundant, do not induce strong CD8+ T cell responses. For reasons described below, I hypothesize that both observations can be explained by proposing that some transfer of immunological information into uninfected DCs may rely on mRNA (rather than protein). So, this proposal has two goals: First, to evaluate how naked RNA induces immunity. Second, to test the hypothesis that, during most microbial infections, mRNA is transferred to uninfected DCs;if it is translated therein, the encoded protein will reach the class I MHC pathway, inducing strong CD8+ T cell responses;I have named this mechanism TATOR (transfer and translation of RNA). Conversely, if the mRNA cannot be translated, the organism is undetectable by CD8+ T cells. Thus, the specific characteristics of their mRNAs renders enteroviruses and extracellular bacteria invisible to CD8+ T cells.
Aim 1. To identify and characterize the DC subset that is involved in RNA-triggered immunity.
Aim 2. To ask if mRNA coding strategy explains how enteroviruses can almost completely evade naive CD8+ T cells, while most viruses induce strong CD8+ T cell responses.
Aim 3. To determine if mRNA regulatory sequences explain why extracellular bacteria fail to induce strong CD8+ T cell responses.
CD8+ T cells are vitally important for controlling and eradicating acute virus infections, for protecting against subsequent encounters with viral pathogens, and for immunity against tumors. This grant is aimed at better understanding how these important immune cells are induced by the intercellular transfer of immunological information. The resulting data can be applied to make better antiviral and anti-tumor vaccines.