What is an immunological synapse?

Part of: Cell avidity analysis

Understanding the synaptic interactions through cell avidity measurements

An immunological (or immune) synapse is the interface between a cancer and a T cell, which is formed in a highly stable, organized manner. This interface can also be formed between cancer cells and other effector cells, such as natural killer cells. The immunological synapse is composed of all intercellular interactions taking place at the interface between the interacting pair, including TCR clustering, co-receptor binding, cell-cell adhesion proteins and even orientations and valencies (figure 1).

Proper formation of the immune synaptic interface is required to initiate T cell activation, achieve sustained proliferation and increase cytokine secretion. The essential aspects that shape it are the intrinsic potency of the T cell receptor (TCR) and the molecules present at the binding site, thus making the synaptic structure an important indicator of T cell function and T cell efficacy.

  1. Explanatory illustration showing the interactions taking place at the interface of a cancer cell and an immune cell.

Immunological synapse formation

2. Immunological synapse formation is triggered by TCR engagement. A bullseye structure is displayed at a TCR-mediated immunological synapse (left) and bsAb-mediated immunological synapse (right), while a nonclassical structure is formed in a CAR-mediated immunological synapse (middle). The functional consequence of the CAR-mediated immunological synapse is rapid signaling and expeditious cytotoxicity on tumor cells.

Immunological synapse formation mediated by T cells

Under physiological conditions where the cancer cells are recognized by T cells, T cell movement is suppressed and immunological synapse formation starts upon TCR engagement (Alcover et al., 2016). In a mature TCR-mediated immunological synapse, the endosomal compartment, cytoskeleton, and signaling network are finely tuned to achieve proper T cell activation and effective immune responses (Soares et al., 2013). A proper TCR-mediated immunological synapse displays a well-organized bullseye structure (figure 2, left), where the cytoskeleton filaments mediate the centripetal movement of TCR microclusters to achieve an adequate T cell activation (Martín-Cófreces et al., 2014). During T cell effector functions, lytic granules or cytokines are released to the synaptic cleft by cytotoxic or helper T cells, respectively (Huse et al., 2006; Stinchcombe et al., 2006). For a sustained T cell activation and secured cell-cell adhesion, the immunological synapse requires actin clearance, polarization of the microtubule fibbers as well as integrin activity (Martín-Cófreces et al., 2018).

Immunological synapse formed in engineered T cells

When it comes to engineered T cells, the situation can be different. While the classical bullseye structure is maintained in bsAb-mediated synapse, CAR-mediated synapse displays a nonclassical structure. Here, the actin cytoskeleton is not completely cleared from the center, and CAR microclusters and signaling molecules are dispersed at the interface (figure 2, middle) (Davenport et al., 2018Watanabe et al., 2018). In the CAR-mediated immunological synapse, the lytic granule secretion is rapidly triggered upon CAR engagement as an immediate response to antigen recognition even before the microtubule polarization takes place. Compared to conventional TCR-mediated immunological synapse, CAR-mediated immunological synapse drives rapid cytotoxicity, but has shorter activating signals and shorter cell-cell interactions that may therefore reduce cell persistence (Bertrand et al., 2013).

Investigating cell-cell interactions across the immunological synapse could predict cell therapy efficacy

Studying the immune synaptic interface is a crucial step to accelerate cell therapy development. The purpose of creating artificial construct engraftment strategies using TCR T cells, CAR T cells, and bispecific antibodies is to redirect T cells. However to properly achieve this, scientists need to get a proper understanding of the molecular mechanisms that take place at the cell-cell interface between cancer and immune cells during T cell activation. As we’ve seen, structural or procedural differences in CAR-mediated and bsAb-mediated immunological synapse from the conventional TCR-mediated immunological synapse will likely alter the nature of the resulting signaling and the eventual therapeutic T cell responses.

Looking into the binding events across the immunological synapse helps researchers to predict the effectiveness of T cells (Xiong et al, 2018). Furthermore, prompt T cell activation upon the synaptic formation allows to correlate binding events across the synapse with T cell functionality (Davenport et al, 2018). Therefore, investigating the immunological synapse not only provides a better understanding of T cell mechanisms behind the observed immune response, but also serves as a powerful indicator of T cell functionality.

Having a solution that gives insight into the activities beyond the single-receptor interaction across the immunological synapse will help to uncover the biological complexity that is inherently linked to T cell function. Cell avidity analysis can be a potential tool to study the immunological synapse, as it unveils cell-cell interactions, and measures the total intercellular binding strength between cancer cells and T cells, including the ones across the synaptic interface. Cell avidity can not only help researchers to understand the processes underlying T cell response, but also to identify effective T cell candidates at an early stage. This early selection can improve the clinical success rate, and reduce costs and save time by reducing the use of in vivo mouse models.

Our solution

The z-Movi® Cell Avidity Analyzer is a solution for researchers to determine cell avidity, which has been notoriously difficult to measure until now. Through avidity measurements, the z-Movi can help researchers investigate cell interaction properties that correspond to immune cell response in a predictive, reproducible, and fast manner. All this at a high-throughput and single-cell level, without compromising cell viability.

Being able to measure these interactions provides researchers valuable information and enables them to select best candidates at an early stage. This informed selection from the start can improve their success rate dramatically.

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