I have spent a lot of time thinking about signalling pathways involved in the activation of T cells and ways in which mathematical modelling could help to understand them better. In the recent past I had not found much time to read about the biological background in this area. Last weekend I started doing this again. In this context I remembered that Al Singer told me that Itk was an interesting target for modelling. At that time I knew nothing about Itk and only now have I come back to that, reading a review article by Andreotti et. al. in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 2010. Before I say more about that I will collect some more general remarks.
The signalling network involved in the activation of T cells is very complex but over time I have become increasingly familiar with it. I want to review now some of the typical features to be found in this and related networks. Phosphorylation and dephosphorylation play a very important role. Phosphate groups can be added to or removed from many proteins, replacing (in animals) the hydroxyl groups in the side chains of the amino acids serine, threonine and tyrosine. The enzymes which add and remove these groups are the kinases and phosphatases, respectively. Often the effect of (de-)phosphorylation is to switch the kinase or phosphatase activity of the protein on or off. This kind of process has been studied from a mathematical point of view relatively frequently, with the MAPK cascade being a popular example. Another phenomenon which is controlled by phosphorylation is the binding of one protein to another, for instance via SH2 domains. An example involved in T cell activation is the binding of ZAP-70 to the -chain associated to the T cell receptor. This binding means that certain proteins are brought into proximity with each other and are more likely to interact. Another type of players are linker or adaptor proteins which seem to have the main (or exclusive?) function of organising proteins spatially. One of these I was aware of is LAT (linker of activated T cells). While reading the Itk paper I came across Slp76, which did not strike me as familiar. Another element of signalling pathways is when one protein cleaves another. This is for instance a widespread mechanism in the complement system.
Now back to Itk (IL2-inducible T cell kinase). It is a kinase and belongs to a family called the Tec kinases. Another member of the family which is more prominent medically is Btk, which is important for the function of B cells. Mutations in Btk cause the immunodeficiency disease X-linked agammaglobulinemia. This is the subject of the first chapter of the fascinating book ‘Case studies in Immunology’ by Geha and Notarangelo. As the name suggests this gene is on the X chromosome and correspondingly the disease mainly affects males. In some work I did I looked at the pathway leading to the transcription factor NFAT. However I only looked at the more downstream part of the pathway. This is related to the fact that in experimental work the more upstream part is often bypassed by the use of ionomycin. This substance causes a calcium influx into the cytosol which triggers the lower part of the pathway. In the natural situation the calcium influx is caused by binding to receptors on the endoplasmic reticulum. The comes from the cleavage of by . This I knew before, but what comes before that? In fact is activated through phosphorylation by Itk and Itk is activated through phosphorylation by Lck, a protein I was very familar with due to some of its other effects in T cell activation.
It seems that in knockout mice which lack Itk T cell development is still possible but the immune system is seriously compromised. Effects can be seen in the differentiation of T-helper cells into the types Th1, Th2 and Th17. The problems are less in the case of Th1 responses because Itk can be replaced by another Tec kinase called Rlk. In the case of Th2 responses this does not work and the secretion of the typical Th2 cytokine IL4 is seriuously affected. The Th17 cells are in an intermediate position, with IL17A being affected but IL17F not. Itk also has important effects during the maturation of T cells. Despite the many roles of Itk there are few cases known where mutations in the corresponding genes leads to medical problems in humans. This kind of mutation is a unique opportunity to learn about the role of various substances in humans, where direct experiments are not possible.
In a 2009 paper of Huck et. al. (J. Exp. Med. 119, 1350) the case of two sisters who suffered from serious problems with immunity is described. In particular they had strong infections with Epstein-Barr virus which could not be overcome despite intensive treatment. They also has an excess of B cells. The older sister died at the age of ten. The younger sister was even more severely affected and stem cell transplantation was attempted when she was six years old. Unfortunately she did not survive that. After extensive investigations it was discovered that both sisters were homozygous for the same mutation in the gene for Itk and that was the source of their problems. Their medical history offers clues to what Itk does in humans. The gene is on chromosome 5 and thus it is natural that its mutations are much more rarely discovered than those of Btk. The mutation must occur in both copies of the gene in order to have a serious effect and this can happen just as easily in females as in males.