The immune system’s CD8 T cells are crucial in the protection against many infections and cancers. Unfortunately, some infections cannot be cleared effectively, and cancer can down-modulate the immune system. Vaccines protect from certain infections and cancers, and immunotherapy can reactivate the immune system. However, current vaccines mainly act via antibodies rather than CD8 T cells, and leave us without protection from several severe pathogens, and a substantial number of cancer patients do not respond to immunotherapy.
It has become clear that not all CD8 T cells are the same, and that different subsets have different properties. Nevertheless, neither prophylactic vaccines, nor therapeutic immunotherapy regimens currently take this heterogeneity into account. Carmen Gerlach believe that vaccines and immunotherapy can be improved by incorporating basic knowledge about the in vivo behavior of different CD8 T cell subsets into the vaccine and therapy design, so the CD8 T cell response will be focused towards the CD8 T cell subset with the most relevant properties.
Using a combination of several single-cell technologies – flow cytometry, single-cell RNA sequencing and fate mapping by cellular barcoding, Carmen Gerlach aims to establish how different CD8 T cell subset arise, and to identify the mechanisms underlying their specific properties. This will hopefully provide the foundation for her ultimate goal: the development of new and improved vaccines and immunotherapy regimens.