Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Immunology and Microbiology


Department of Medicine

First Thesis Advisor

Anuja Mathew, Ph.D.


Telomere, Telomere Homeostasis, T-Lymphocytes, Cell Transformation, Viral, In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence


Telomere length has been shown to be a critical determinant of T cell replicative capacity and in vivo persistence in humans. We evaluated telomere lengths in virus-specific T cells to understand how they may both shape and be changed by the maintenance of memory T cells during a subsequent virus re-infection or reactivation. We used longitudinal peripheral blood samples from healthy donors and samples from a long-term HCV clinical interferon therapy trial to test our hypotheses.

To assess T cell telomere lengths, I developed novel modifications to the flow cytometry fluorescence in situ hybridization (flowFISH) assay. These flowFISH modifications were necessary to enable quantification of telomere length in activated, proliferating T cells. Adoption of a fixation-permeabilization protocol with RNA nuclease treatment prior to telomere probe hybridization were required to produce telomere length estimates that were consistent with a conventional telomere restriction fragment length Southern blot assay.

We hypothesized that exposure to a non-recurring, acute virus infection would produce memory T cells with longer telomeres than those specific for recurring or reactivating virus infections. We used two acute viruses, vaccinia virus (VACV) and influenza A virus (IAV) and two latent-reactivating herpesviruses, cytomegalovirus (CMV) and varicella zoster virus (VZV) for these studies. Combining a proliferation assay with flowFISH, I found telomeres in VACV-specific CD4 + T cells were longer than those specific for the recurring exposure IAV; data which support my hypothesis. Counter to my hypothesis, CMV-specific CD4 + T cells had longer telomeres than IAV-specific CD4 + T cells.

We assessed virus-specific CD4 + T cell telomere length in five donors over a period of 8-10 years which allowed us to develop a linear model of average virus-specific telomere length changes. These studies also found evidence of long telomere, virus-specific CD45RA + T cell populations whose depletion may precede an increased susceptibility to latent virus reactivation.

I tested the hypothesis that type I interferon therapy would accelerate T cell telomere loss using PBMC samples from a cohort of chronic hepatitis C virus patients who either did or did not receive an extended course of treatment with interferon-alpha. Accelerated telomere losses occurred in naïve T cells in the interferon therapy group and were concentrated in the first half of 48 months of interferon therapy. Steady accumulation of CD57 + memory T cells in the control group, but not the therapy group, suggested that interferon also accelerated memory turnover.

Based on our data, I present proposed models of memory T cell maintenance and impacts of T cell telomere length loss as we age.



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