The single-cell and gene expression analysis of T cell activation and signalling

  • Ruth Brignall

Student thesis: Phd


Our immune system must be able to rapidly fight against pathogens, but at the same time be tightly regulated to prevent harmful autoimmune and inflammatory responses. This intricate balance is controlled in part by T lymphocytes. Therapies targeting T cells have the potential to revolutionise the ways in which inflammation and autoimmune diseases are treated. However, before this can be achieved, a better quantitative understanding of the molecular processes controlling the functions of these cells is required. T cell signalling is tightly regulated by a series of complex molecular networks, which converge on key transcription factors, including Nuclear Factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB), Nuclear Factor of Activated T cells (NFAT), and Activator Protein 1 (AP-1). Using a combination of single-cell time-lapse imaging, and genome-wide assays probing for chromatin accessibility and gene expression, this study provides a better understanding of the mechanisms underpinning T cell activation and signalling.One central tenet of T cell activation is that activation-associated gene expression is triggered by the binding of the cognate antigen to the T cell receptor (TCR), and enhanced by co-stimulatory receptors, including CD28, which act to augment TCR signalling. This study shows that activation- associated gene expression programmes (induced by calcium ionophore ionomycin and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) in Jurkat T cells) are closely associated with specific chromatin landscapes. Further to this, data shown here indicate that the integration between TCR and co- stimulatory receptor signalling occurs at the chromatin level, and plays a pivotal role in regulating T cell activation. Using live-cell imaging, this study also shows that information about the diverse external signals received by T cells could be encoded within the dynamic nuclear translocations of key transcription factors. In particular, TCR signals appear to be processed by the duration of NFAT nuclear occupancy. TCR stimulation in the presence of a co-stimulatory signal resulted in the rapid nuclear import and export of NFAT proteins. In contrast, when TCR stimulation was applied without a co-stimulatory signal, prolonged nuclear occupancy of NFAT was observed. Further investigation suggested that the sustained activity of NFAT could confer a 'signal memory' within the TCR signalling network, thus providing a potential mechanism for preventing premature T cell turn-off during transient T cell-Antigen presenting cell interactions. This new detailed picture of T cell biology moves the field towards better therapeutic strategies for numerous diseases.
Date of Award31 Dec 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPawel Paszek (Supervisor), Dean Jackson (Supervisor) & Mark Travis (Supervisor)


  • NFAT
  • T cell
  • Signalling

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