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T cells play a central role in cell-mediated immunity and study of T cell function can help to uncover the mechanisms of many diseases including cancer
Reviewed December 15, 2020
T cells are a type of white blood cell or lymphocyte that recognizes and targets pathogen-infected cells, or cancer cells, for clearance. T cells originate from hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow and precursors are shuttled to the thymus for final maturation. T cells are selective, so that they are tolerant to the body’s own cells (self-molecules) but remain highly sensitive to non-self pathogens.
There are many subsets of T cells, each with important functions relating to the immune system. Immunophenotyping offers a way to identify and quantify the different populations of T cells within a sample, using antibodies to detect specific antigens expressed by these cells, which are known as markers.
View our effector T cell markers poster
Three subtypes that are commonly studied in T cell research include:
The table below provides an overview of immunophenotypic markers in specific T cell types - to find effector T cell markers, view our effector T cells poster.
|T cell type||Markers||Cellular localization||Description|
|All||CD3||Cell membrane||Cell membrane receptor|
|Killer T cell||CD8||Cell membrane||Cell membrane receptor|
|Killer T cell||IFNγ, TNF||Secreted|
|Killer T cell||EOMES||Nuclear||Transcription factor|
|Helper T cell||CD4||Cell membrane||Cell membrane receptor|
|Helper Th1||CXCR3||Cell membrane||Chemokine receptor|
|Helper Th1||IFNγ, IL-2, IL-12, IL-18||Secreted||Cytokines|
|Helper Th1||STAT4, STAT1||Nuclear||Transcription factors|
|Helper Th2||CCR4||Cell membrane||Chemokine receptor|
|Helper Th2||IL-2, IL-4||Secreted||Cytokines|
|Treg cell||CD4, CD25, CD127, CD152||Cell membrane||Cell membrane receptors|
|Treg cell||TGFβ, IL-10, IL-12||Secreted||Cytokines|
|Treg cell||FoxP3, STAT5||Nuclear||Transcription factors|
Defective T cell function is linked to a number of disease states that can leave a patient severely immunologically compromised. Complete loss of T cell function can be lethal. Studying how T cells recognize and activate immune responses is, therefore, vital for understanding disorders of immune regulation:
Partial T cell disorders render the patient incapable of eliciting a full immune response to an infection. These disorders may be associated with reduced T cell number or loss of T cell activity. For example, DiGeorge syndrome is a genetic disorder in which the thymus is underdeveloped, and recurrent infections are common in patients.
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) is an extreme example of immunodeficiency brought on by a number of immune regulation abnormalities, arising from genetic mutations that affect the development and differentiation of T cells and other white blood cells, including B cells.
Autoimmune disease occurs when T cells are unable to distinguish self from non-self and launch an immune response against patients’ own cells. Common disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis are classed as systemic affecting the whole body, whereas organ-specific autoimmune disease may include Crohn’s disease or Celiac disease (gluten intolerance).
There are a number of lymphocyte-derived leukemia types, some of which originate in immature or mature T cells (T-cell lymphomas). These cancers can negatively affect red blood cell production and platelets resulting in anemias and leading to blood clotting deficiencies as well as hindering the ability to fight infection. Sometimes T-cell cancer may be virally induced such as in T-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is linked to HTLV-1 (human T-cell lymphotropic virus 1) infection.
T-cell-based cancer immunotherapy
Tumors have developed multiple mechanisms to evade immune cells. However, researchers have now found ways to harness the power of the immune system to combat cancer. These treatments, known as immunotherapies, are showing remarkable responses in patients with advanced stages of the disease. One approach involves using the patient's own immune cells to identify and attack the tumor. T cells are the building blocks of this type of immunotherapy. Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) have been engineered on the surface of T cells to allow them to recognize specific proteins on tumor cells and attack them. CAR T therapy is already approved for some childhood and adult leukemias and lymphomas and is also showing promising results in clinical trials in solid tumors. Another approach is based on the use of monoclonal antibodies, targeting inhibitory immune checkpoint molecules such as PD-L1 to enhance the immune response to tumors. The development of these therapies has been made possible through the study of immune cells, and in particular T cells.
Flow cytometry provides the ability to type immune cells based on their phenotype. The presence of specific cell surface markers, cytokine expression, or phosphorylation of key proteins may be used to immunophenotype-specific sub-populations from a heterogeneous starting population. Thus, the unique signature carried by different immune cells can be utilized to isolate cell populations in a similar way to how the immune system targets foreign pathogens: antibody binding.
T lymphocytes may be immunophenotyped on the basis of CD3+ expression and subsequently further sub-divided (e.g. CD8+ Killer T cells and CD4+ Helper T cells). Moreover, T cell phenotypes are flexible and can adapt to different microenvironments; phenotypes may also overlap among multiple T cell populations. Further T cell subset classification may be based on specific cytokine secretion in response to certain stimuli or the phosphorylation of immune signaling proteins, such as STAT proteins. Therefore, the ability of the T cell to respond to the environment, such as in a disease state, can be monitored using flow cytometry.
Learn about flow cytometry immunophenotyping.