DNA barcoding technology could improve disease treatments

Samagra Jain

A UT professor is using DNA barcoding technology to catalog millions of immune system threats to more easily create new treatments for diseases in the near future.   

The research group of Ning Jenny Jiang, a systems immunology associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering at UT, utilized this technology to rapidly identify combinations of T-cells and antigens. Their work could eventually lead to novel treatments for diseases such as cancer, said Jiang.

T-cells are an essential part of the immune system, and antigens are foreign substances that trigger an immune response . Antigens can be spread through the body by diseases or infections. When a T-cell detects an antigen through its T-cell receptor, it alerts other T-cells, and the body can then launch a coordinated attack on the foreign substance.

“Each individual T-cell expresses a different (T-cell receptor),” Jiang said. “This system is how animals, from mammals to fish, generate a protection which allows them to destroy antigens and antigen-expressing substances.”

The problem for modern immune system research, Jiang said, lies in discovering the many different combinations of T-cell receptors and antigens, of which there are estimated to be millions. Solving this issue would allow scientists to focus their efforts and more efficiently develop medications, she added.

Jiang’s group used a technology called DNA barcoding, which allows researchers to build a ‘peptide library,’ or a catalog of antigens. This allows for the screening of a high volume of samples at once by quickly matching T-cell receptors to antigens.

“This technology allows us to answer the question of how many different (T-cell receptor)-antigen combinations we can identify simultaneously,” Jiang said.

Systems immunology is a relatively new addition to the field of biology that studies the human immune system in the context of the rest of the body. Instead of analyzing just the direct players in the immune system, such as T-cells, systems immunology looks at interactions between these components and other structures, such as DNA, to make new advances in medical research.

In the future, Jiang said she is looking to apply her research method to cancer immunotherapy, a promising treatment that relies on T-cells targeting only specific cells as opposed to chemotherapy, which affects the entire body. The treatment targets the new antigens produced by tumor cells, according to the American Cancer Society. Current treatment effectiveness is limited by a T-cell’s ability to bind to multiple antigens, which prevents them from binding exclusively to tumor antigens.

“It’s known that the T-cell receptor can cross-react, so our work may be able to provide a solution to this problem,” Jiang said.

The new technology can identify tumor antigens which don’t trigger the cross-reactive T-cell receptors, she said, leading to more effective immunotherapy and paving the way for clinical studies for these new types of treatments.

“For anything involving humans, there are always a lot of regulations regarding what we are allowed to do,” Jiang said. “Our work would be able to address those issues and allow for new clinical options.”

Her group might expand their technology to combat other diseases as well.

“We would like to translate this technology into clinics and not limit it to just cancer,” Jiang said. “This technology is very powerful and can be used in categorizing many different types of T-cells, which will help combat infections and develop vaccinations.”