News and events

Immune cell health discovery could optimise cancer therapies

Last updated



New research - part-funded by the Medical Research Foundation - has discovered that immune cells are able to ‘recycle’ material within themselves in order to stay healthy and function, a breakthrough finding which could lead to more effective immunotherapies.

Dr Leo Swadling researching into Infection and Immunity Dr Leo Swadling, UCL Infection and Immunity.

In the study, published in Cell Reports, researchers from UCL investigated how ‘autophagy’ – the natural physiological process of ‘self-eating’ which allows intracellular components, such as mitochondria, to be degraded and replaced - takes place in liver-based T cells.

T cells are a subset of lymphocytes (white blood cells) that play a key role in protecting against chronic liver infection and tumours.

Researchers discovered that T cells in the liver had an enhanced rate of autophagy and that this is enabled by the presence and action of a soluble messenger found in the liver: the cytokine ‘interleukin-15’ (IL-15).

This is the first study to identify that IL-15 can boost autophagy in human T cells and researchers believe this new understanding could enable emerging immunotherapies, such as CAR T cell therapy, to be positively manipulated to boost T cell health and survival.

Dr Leo Swadling, UCL Infection and Immunity, said: “The liver is a common site for chronic viral infection and tumours and T cells play a key role in protecting against these.

“T cells living within the liver must adapt to the stressful microenvironment, with low levels of oxygen and an abundance of inhibitory signals, to find ways of maintaining prolonged survival and functionality.

“We discovered that a population of T cells able to live exclusively within the human liver can switch on autophagy to maintain nutrient supply and renew organelles like mitochondria to maintain their fitness. We could imprint this same adaptation on T cells taken from blood by exposing them to the cytokine IL-15.”


Image: White outline of liver with T cells during autophagy.

The research team were assisted by surgeons and the Tissue Access for Patient Benefit project (TAPb) at The Royal Free Hospital, London, and gained rare access to live immune cells from human liver samples.

Several cutting-edge single cell technologies were used to compare autophagy in the T cells from these liver samples to T cells in the blood.

Professor Mala Maini, UCL Infection and Immunity, said: “Understanding how human T cells are adapted for autophagy opens up the possibility of manipulating this dynamic process, which could enable a wide range of new and effective therapeutic possibilities.

“For instance, we can now investigate whether modulating autophagy rates can be used to improve emerging immunotherapies for cancer and chronic viral infection (such as TCR-redirected T cells and CAR T cells), where T cells must persist and function in diverse tumour and tissue microenvironments.”

The study was led by UCL Division of Infection and Immunity, with support from UCL Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, King's College London, QMUL and the University of Oxford. Funding was provided with grants from the Medical Research Foundation and Wellcome.

Research paper reference: Leo Swadling et al (2020) "Human Liver Memory CD8+ T Cells Use Autophagy for Tissue Residence" Cell Reports DOI:10.1016/j.celrep.2019.12.050.

Find out more about Dr Leo Swadling's Foundation-funded research.