Conference on systems biology of T cells in Baeza, part 2

In the remaining one and a half days of the conference there were another fourteen talks and I will mention some aspects of their contents which attracted my attention. One recurring theme was that the encounter of a T cell receptor (TCR) with the peptide it recognizes bound to an MHC molelcule (pMHC) is often not just the encounter of one TCR with one pMHC but of multiple players. It can be shown by electron microscopy that the TCR tend to cluster on the surface of a T cell even before it has encountered antigen. This is done by attaching gold particles to the TCR so that they show up as black dots on the electron micrograph. It was shown in the talk of Hisse van Santen that a similar thing happens with the pMHC on the surface of antigen presenting cells. Judging from the discussion after the talk it seems that the explanation for this is that the pMHC, which are well known to be produced in the interior of the cell, are exported to the surface in groups. There also seems to be a widely held opinion that signalling through the T cell receptor is absolutely dependent on clustering of TCR. This makes life more complicated than it otherwise might have been. I learned at this conference that experiments on T cell signalling in vitro are often done by using tetramers, i.e. groups of four pMHC which are bound together covalently. In the talk of Wolfgang Schamel described experiments using tetramer binding. He said that this work was linked with some mathematical modelling, done by Thomas Höfer and others, but he did not want to take questions on that. My impression was that the model was an extension of the kinetic proofreading model. It has not yet been published and so I did not yet have an opportunity to look at it. Carmen Molina-París and Balbino Alarcón discussed cooperative effects in T cell receptor binding.

Michal Polonsky showed pictures of individual T cells trapped in small wells in a microfluidic device. When activated they wriggle very vigorously. These are the kind of pictures which could easily make you take a very anthropomorphic view of T cells. The aim of this work is to observe the differentiation, division and death of the cells over long periods (several days). If they were not trapped it would be extremely difficult to follow them under the microscope since they would be liable to run away. A break from the purely scientific talks was provided by a presentation of Dinah Singer about the systems biology programme at the National Cancer Institute in the US, a programme which she runs. Apart from concrete information about funding another aspect of this was the question of what might be learned about the potential for applying systems biology to immunology from existing applications of these ideas to cancer research. Dipankar Nandi talked about a phenomenon I had never heard of before and would never have expected – atrophy of the thymus as a consequence of certain diseases. Finally, I was on more familiar ground with the talk of Isabel Mérida about certain signalling pathways in T cell activation. The substance at the centre of her talk, diacylglycerol kinase, was not familiar to me but the context was. Right at the end of the conference there was a general discussion session planned. This session, which was led by Ed Palmer, ended up being very short. This was due to the (in itself positive) fact that the discussions after (and during) the individual talks had taken up more time than planned. The final discussion was interesting despite its brevity. The basic theme was: if mathematicians are collaborating with immunologists what can each side do to help the other in this process? Interesting points were brought up and we were all sent home with some things to think about.

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