C-Myc oncogene determines function of immune cells

T cell
T cell

Asymmetric cell division plays an important role during the development of our nervous and digestive systems. It is thought that T cells, a type of immune cell, can also divide asymmetrically, giving rise to two different daughter cells. Now, St. Jude researchers have shown that the oncogene c-Myc can control this asymmetric division in T cells, which could potentially improve cancer therapy.

Douglas Green and his lab at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital published their work earlier this week in the journal Nature.


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Instead of producing two identical daughter cells, T cells can create two distinct daughter cells with different cell fates. One cell immediately responds to the infecting pathogen by generating effector T cells, while the other cell multiplies as memory T cells--representing a short- and long-term strategy for dealing with pathogens.

"Our study shows that the way in which the regulatory protein c-Myc distributes during asymmetric cell division directly influences the fate and roles of activated T cells," said Green in a news release. "We also show how this asymmetry is established and sustained."

The team showed that during asymmetric division of activated T cells, high levels of c-Myc group together in one daughter cell and not the other. A higher dose of c-Myc appeared to kick the daughter cell into action. They became effector T cells to fight the infection, while the daughter cell with a lower dose of c-Myc formed memory T cells, effectively coordinating an attack a month later if exposed to the same infecting pathogen.

They saw that effector T cells generated from a high c-Myc concentration had a positive feedback loop, enabling them to sustain high levels of c-Myc and maintain their effector T cell identity. When c-Myc in these cells was experimentally lowered the very switch of this protein abundance pushed these cells into becoming memory T cells instead.

"Our work suggests that it may be possible to manipulate the immune response by nudging production of c-Myc in one direction or the other," said Green. "Potentially that could mean more effective vaccines or help to advance T-cell immune therapy for cancer treatment."

Although it was known that T cells could undergo asymmetric cell division, this study was the first to show that T cells' behavior can be changed by manipulating their metabolic and regulatory pathways to produce different levels of c-Myc. Since c-Myc has been well characterized for its role in a wide range of cancers, this finding may lead to more effective vaccines and improved immunotherapies for cancer.

- here's the release
- and here's the abstract


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