Recent studies conducted first in animals and subsequently confirmed in humans have shown that tolerance to solid organ transplants can be achieved using donor-derived hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). HSCs can induce tolerance by embedding in the recipient’s thymus. Once in the thymus they cause the deletion or inhibition of recipient cells that would otherwise cause rejection of a transplanted organ from the same donor. The coexistence of donor and host hematopoietic cells is called mixed chimerism and as long as the donor cells remain in the host, an allograft from the donor can be accepted without the need for immunosuppression.
Although many studies have shown that mixed chimerism can be obtained, donor tissue can still reject because the host responses to engrafted organs are not completely suppressed. Therefore, before HSC strategies can be widely used, additional refinements are needed to prevent activation of host responses. A logical approach, based on recent new information about the early activation events, involves targeting primitive receptors that are initial triggers of adaptive immunity – pattern recognition receptors (PRRs).
Pattern recognition receptors have recently been linked to activation of HSCs because it is known that HSCs undergo massive expansion and migration in inflammation. Two families of PRRs have been identified in HSCs – toll-like receptors (TLRs) and NOD-like receptors (NLRs). TLRs reside on cell membranes and NLRs are found within the cells HSCs. TLR/NLR-induced expansion and differentiation of HSCs results in their differentiation into activated cells that trigger rejection of donor cells (i.e., chimeric donor cells that would otherwise ‘tolerize’ host T cells are rejected). The end result of the PRR-induced activation of HSCs is loss of mixed chimerism and graft rejection. We have already shown that targeted blockade of specific PRRs can prevent ischemia-mediated tissue injury, inflammatory responses to the tissue injury, and also prolong survival of highly immunogenic allografts.
The overall objective of our project is to identify novel potential drug targets that promote HSC-mediated tolerance to transplanted solid organs. The idea is that signals mediated through PRRs interfere with HSC-mediated mixed chimerism and tolerance induction. We proposed to test our hypothesis in three interrelated aims. The first aim focused on testing the role of PRRs in the induction of tolerance. The second aim focused on the role of donor cells in the induction of host T cell unresponsiveness. The third aim focused on the role of HSC-mediated mixed chimerism on donor graft survival.
The first year of funding has already led to some important initial findings that are setting the stage for our understanding the role of hematopoietic stem cell induced tolerance. We believe that many, unavoidable, signals are activated during the course of HSC harvest and transplantation and that some of these signals reduce the ability of the transplanted HSCs to engraft in the host. Our initial findings suggest that if some of these signals are blocked, HSC engraftment, and transplant tolerance, can be enhanced. We are currently testing our initial exciting findings and progressing on the second and third aims of the study.