New immunomodulatory roles of lymphatic endothelium and implications for immunotherapy

The lymphatic system serves a critical role in fluid homeostasis, lipid metabolism and immune surveillance. The growing appreciation of its implication in various diseases challenges the conventional view of lymphatics as a passive transport system. Traditionally, the lymphatic endothelium has been perceived as a structural scaffold with certain immunological functions but no active involvement in immunomodulation. In the lymph nodes (LNs), the main sites of immune regulation in the periphery, lymphatic endothelial cells (LECs) come to close contact with immune cells, suggesting potential interactions. Indeed, LECs have been recently shown to suppress dendritic cell maturation and present peripheral tissue and tumor antigen for CD8+ T cell deletion. While LECs have only begun to be acknowledged as active regulators of immunity, their function and relative contribution in shaping immune responses is as yet poorly understood. This thesis aimed to elucidate the direct role of LECs in the induction of CD8+ T cell immunity and tolerance. First, we demonstrated that murine LECs can actively scavenge and cross-present exogenous antigen to cognate CD8+ T cells under non-inflamed conditions. By utilizing an in vitro coculture system and the model antigen ovalbumin, we investigated the antigen-specific interactions between LECs and CD8+ T cells. LEC-educated CD8+ T cells proliferated, exhibiting an activated phenotype, however, they displayed early-generation apoptosis and failed to produce effector cytokines. Our findings establish LECs as antigen-presenting cells and suggest that they may assist in the maintenance of peripheral tolerance during homeostasis. The particular differentiation state of LEC-educated CD8+ T cells prompted us to investigate whether they are terminally tolerized or they could escape the dysfunctional state. We demonstrated that LEC-educated CD8+ T cells adopted a distinct phenotype with central memory-like characteristics and shared multiple functional properties with memory cells. Upon antigen re-encounter, LEC-educated CD8+ T cells mounted proliferative responses and generated cytotoxic effector cells. More importantly, they participated in anti-infectious immunity while preserving a secondary-memory persistent population. Our findings reveal a unique differentiation state of antigen-experienced CD8+ T cells, generated under steady-state conditions, which remain inactive but can be functionally reactivated upon antigenic inflammatory challenge. This previously unanticipated feature of LECs triggered questions for their antigen-presenting function in an inflammatory setting. We asked whether the previously observed extensive proliferation of LECs in the LN during inflammation might directly influence the induction of immunity. We employed an anti-VEGFR3 blocking antibody to inhibit LEC proliferation and thus, reduce the number of LECs following vaccine immunization. Alternatively, we generated the Prox1-Cre-DTR mouse model, allowing for specific ablation of LECs following administration of diphtheria toxin in vivo. Our findings advance our perception of the relative contribution of LECs in the establishment of adaptive immunity. This thesis elucidates the multifaceted immunological role of LECs and strongly suggests the importance of harnessing their immunomodulatory function to enhance current vaccines and immunotherapeutic strategies. Looking forward, our work will contribute to future advances in the clinic.


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