Cloaking device helps pathogens evade immune system

Image of yeast cells, some of which have been "unmasked"

The top left image shows normal yeast cells. The single white dot in the image on the right shows an antibody recognizing just one of those cells. The bottom left image shows fungal cells that have been “unmasked.” The image next to it illustrates a far more widespread antibody recognition.

Image by Robert Wheeler

May 12, 2006

Tags: Fink LabImmune System

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (May 12, 2006) — How does our immune system recognize friend from foe? Why does it easily identify many bacterial and viral infections yet sometimes miss other invaders, such as pathogenic fungi? This question has troubled biologists for decades. Now, researchers in the lab of Whitehead Founding Member Gerald Fink have discovered a biological “cloaking device,” a network of genes that may help pathogenic fungi hide from the immune system. When this network is disabled, these virulent fungal invaders are suddenly rendered vulnerable to the body’s defenses.

“This network may very well be one more tactic in the ongoing hide-and-seek game between our immune systems and pathogenic fungi,” says Fink, lead author of the paper that appeared in the April issue of the journal PLoS Pathogens.

Pathogenic fungi are the fastest-growing cause of hospital-acquired infections, preying mostly on patients with a compromised immune system. Chemotherapy, organ transplantation and HIV/AIDS are a few of the conditions that increase a patient’s vulnerability.

Researchers have known for many years that the membranes of these fungal cells appear to be surrounded by an outer shell, almost like an M&M. The inside of the shell is marked by deposits of sugar called beta-glucan, molecules that are easily spotted by the immune system. The outer surface of the shell is composed primarily of a protein called mannan, which the immune system can’t see. While this sort of outer shell is unique to fungal cells, no scientist had yet demonstrated what sort of biological role it might play.

Robert Wheeler, a postdoctoral scientist in the Fink lab, conducted experiments in which he placed fungal cells in a dish and introduced an antibody designed to detect the beta-glucan on the underside of the shell. However, in these experiments, the antibody often seemed to have trouble recognizing the beta-glucan, and, as a result, could not detect the fungal cell.

“We decided that we needed a way to test if the outer layer, the one made of mannan, might somehow be protecting beta-glucan from the immune system,” says Wheeler.

Since many species of fungal pathogens, including baker’s yeast, contain this mannan layer, Wheeler decided to use this common household product as a model for determining mannan’s function.

After screening thousands of mutant yeast strains, Wheeler discovered a network of genes responsible for creating the mannan layer, genes that all had counterparts in pathogenic fungi. When Wheeler then knocked out key genes in the mannan network in pathogenic fungi and placed them in a dish containing beta-glucan antibodies, the antibodies immediately “recognized” the fungi.

Next, Wheeler placed these fungal cells in a dish with certain immune system cells. With mannan disabled, the immune cells recognized the fungi far more efficiently. In an organism, that reaction would produce a full immune response.

“This mannan layer seems to be masking beta glucan from the immune system,” says Wheeler.

“Interactions between the immune system and pathogens are highly complex,” says Fink, who is also a professor of biology at MIT. “On the surface, it looks like a ‘point, counter-point’ competition. One side evolves a particular defense, and then, through natural selection, the other side develops a way to counter that defense. This outer layer of mannan is one of many processes that pathogenic fungi have evolved to survive in what would otherwise be a hostile environment.”

These findings may also help explain why a certain class of drugs called echinocandins are so effective against pathogenic fungi. When administered in high doses, these drugs kill the pathogens all in one fell swoop. When Wheeler administered non-lethal doses of these drugs along with a beta-glucan antibody, the drugs appeared to unmask the pathogen just enough so that the antibody could recognize it.

“In other words, these are drug concentrations that, when placed alone in a dish with a pathogen, wouldn’t affect its viability,” says Wheeler. “But when accompanied by an immune system product, the pathogen is eliminated.”

“No doubt these findings are certainly of interest to companies developing anti-fungal therapeutics,” adds Fink. In particular, using a drug to disable the mannan layer and then allowing the immune system to naturally attack the fungi may prove a powerful new approach.

This research was supported by the Bushrod H. Campbell and Adah F. Hall Charity Fund, and by the National Institutes of Health.

Written by David Cameron.

Full citation

PLoS Pathogens, Vol 2, Issue 4, April 2006

"A Drug-Sensitive Genetic Network Masks Fungi from the Immune System"

Authors: Robert T. Wheeler (1), Gerald R. Fink (1)

(1) Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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