Approach to monitor the effect of annual flu vaccination

In an article published in Science Immunology, E. John Wherry and co-workers report that they have found an approach to detect a type of circulating helper T cells in the blood after an annual flu vaccine. The approach would help determine whether the vaccination is successful. The study involves collaboration between several research centers in the USA, including the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Durham VA Medical Center.

Much of the immune system's work is carried out by various specialized cells, such as B cells, which make and release key molecule weapons called antibodies, and T cells, which function either offensively or defensively. Vaccines teach the immune system by mimicking a natural infection. The success of most vaccines depends on both B cells and T cells.

Some flu vaccines use purified proteins from the outer layer of killed flu viruses. The body produces antibodies against these proteins after vaccination. Measuring the levels of these antibodies in the blood help identify how well a vaccine is working. The circulating T follicular helper (cTfh) cells, which provide B cell help, are important for the strength of antibodies. Lack of cTfh cells has a negative effect on antibody production. However, there is limited knowledge about cTfh cells.

In this work, Wherry and co-workers carried out experiments to define the contribution of cTfh cells to antibody development after vaccination. They examined immunological memory in people receiving successive annual flu vaccinations and found that cTfh cells respond to flu vaccination and form long-lasting memory.

The researchers found a subset of cTfh cells that expressed multiple transcription factors and cytokines such as Bcl-6, c-Maf, and IL-21, and these cells could be identified by coexpression of ICOS and CD38. The number of these cells was highly increased at day 7 after vaccination. In participants receiving successive annual vaccinations, the researchers detected genetically identical clones of cTfh cells, suggesting that these cells formed memory to the flu vaccine.

The study underscores memory properties of human cTfh responses to vaccination and provides a way to track this cell subset. The findings help monitor cTFH responses during infection and vaccination in humans.
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