GSBS Dissertations and Theses



Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Immunology and Microbiology



First Thesis Advisor

John E. Harris


autoimmunity, vitiligo, melanoma, tumor biology, type I interferons, CD8 T cells


Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin disease in which the pigment producing cells of the epidermis, melanocytes, are targeted for destruction by CD8+ T cells specific for melanocyte/melanoma-shared antigens. Previous work has identified IFNg as the central cytokine driving disease pathogenesis in both human patients and in our mouse model of vitiligo. IFNg signaling induces production of the chemokines CXCL9 and CXCL10, which trigger autoreactive T cell migration into the epidermis where effector T cells can target and destroy melanocytes. However, both IFNg and type I IFN signaling through activation of STAT1 proteins can induce transcription of the chemokines CXCL9 and CXCL10. Therefore, it seems reasonable that type I IFN signaling may also contribute to disease pathogenesis.

The role of type I IFN in vitiligo is still unclear. Genome wide association studies identified multiple genes within the type I IFN pathway including TICAM1 and IFIH1 as susceptibility loci in vitiligo. One additional study reported increased epidermal staining of CD123, a marker expressed by pDCs, and the type I IFN induced gene MX1 in vitiligo patient skin. However, this study did not show any functional data to support the role of type I IFN signaling in vitiligo pathogenesis. Since the role of type I IFN in vitiligo is ill-defined, we used two different mouse models of vitiligo to functionally determine the role of type I IFN in disease by inducing vitiligo in hosts which lack the type I IFN receptor (IFNaR).

In the first model, we induced vitiligo by adoptive transfer of melanocyte-specific CD8 T cells, which are activated in vivo by infection with recombinant vaccinia virus (VACV) expressing their cognate antigen. Vitiligo induction in IFNaR-deficient mice led to the development of severe disease compared to wild type mice. Acceleration and severity of disease was characterized by increased early recruitment of melanocyte-specific CD8 T cells to the skin, increased production of effector cytokines TNFa and IFNg, and reduced PD-1 expression. Increased production of IFNg by CD8 T cells in the skin of IFNaR-deficient mice led to increased expression of the chemokines CXCL9 and CXCL10 driving disease progression. IFNaR-deficient mice also displayed significantly increased VACV titters compared to wild type hosts. This data reveals a role of type I IFN in the clearance of recombinant VACV. This data also suggests that persistent VACV infection and prolonged antigen exposure in IFNaR deficient hosts is likely driving enhanced activation of melanocyte specific CD8 T cells and the subsequent development of severe vitiligo.

Since melanocytes and melanoma cells express shared antigens that can be recognized by CD8 T cells, and because the development of vitiligo after melanoma immunotherapy is a positive prognostic factor for patients, we asked whether VACV vaccine therapy in IFNaR deficient mice would enhance the anti-tumor response to melanoma. B16-F10 inoculated wild type and IFNaR-deficient mice received adoptive transfer of melanocyte-specific CD8 T cells in combination with vaccinia virus expressing their cognate antigen to activate the cells in vivo. Treatment of adoptive T cell transfer and infection with VACV in IFNaR-deficient mice revealed significantly reduced tumor burden compared to wild type mice. Improved tumor regression in IFNaR-deficient hosts was characterized by increased infiltrating cytotoxic T lymphocytes and reduced PD-1 expression. These results further demonstrate that in the absence of type I IFN, hosts mount a robust cytotoxic CD8 T cell response against melanocyte/melanoma antigens and this is likely a result of persistent VACV that leads to prolonged CD8 T cell priming. As a result, IFNaR deficient hosts kill tumor cells more efficiently.

To determine whether type I IFN regulates disease pathogenesis in the absence of virus infection, we generated a model of vitiligo in which bone marrow derived dendritic cells (BMDCs) pulsed with the cognate antigen were used to prime melanocyte-specific T cells in place of the viral vector. Induction of vitiligo in IFNaR-deficient hosts using BMDCs revealed no significant differences in disease score compared to wild type hosts. This data clearly demonstrates that type I IFN, in contrast to IFNg, is not required during the effector stage of vitiligo pathogenesis in mice.

However, since we intentionally activate transferred melanocyte-specific CD8 T cells with VACV or BMDCs expressing their cognate antigen, our mouse models may circumvent the role of type I IFNs in initiating activation of autoreactive cells and driving autoimmunity. Type I IFN is critical for providing innate immune signals that drive the priming of autoreactive T cells through maturation of DCs by inducing antigen presentation, co-stimulatory molecule expression, and migration to the lymph nodes to encounter naïve T cells. Our mouse models of vitiligo may not capture this process. We have addressed this question by using a TLR ligand to activate BMDCs before transfer into hosts. In fact, activation of BMDCs before transfer leads to significantly enhanced vitiligo in mice and this is partially a result of type I IFN signaling on host cells. Thus, we provide evidence that type I IFNs can enhance the activation of melanocyte-specific CD8 T cells and drive autoimmunity.

Collectively, our results show that type I IFN signaling has disparate effects on autoreactive T cell priming in a context dependent manner. We reveal that although type I IFN is not required for the effector phase of vitiligo in mice, maturation of DCs and subsequent type I IFN production can enhance the priming of autoreactive T cells and enhance vitiligo severity. Our studies also reveal that type I IFN is required to clear recombinant attenuated VACV infection and vaccine administration in IFNaR deficient hosts led to a robust autoreactive and anti-tumor response. These insights describing the role of type I IFN in autoimmunity and tumor immunology could have important implications for T cell dependent tumor immunotherapy.



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Available for download on Thursday, April 15, 2021