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Sharing the burden: antigen transport and firebreaks in immune responses.

Abstract

Communication between cells is crucial for immune responses. An important means of communication during viral infections is the presentation of viral antigen on the surface of an infected cell. Recently, it has been shown that antigen can be shared between infected and uninfected cells through gap junctions, connexin-based channels, that allow the transport of small molecules. The uninfected cell receiving antigen can present it on its surface. Cells presenting viral antigen are detected and killed by cytotoxic T lymphocytes. The killing of uninfected cells can lead to increased immunopathology. However, the immune response might also profit from killing those uninfected bystander cells. One benefit might be the removal of future 'virus factories'. Another benefit might be through the creation of 'firebreaks', areas void of target cells, which increase the diffusion time of free virions, making their clearance more likely. Here, we use theoretical models and simulations to explore how the mechanism of gap junction-mediated antigen transport (GMAT) affects the dynamics of the virus and immune response. We show that under the assumption of a well-mixed system, GMAT leads to increased immunopathology, which always outweighs the benefit of reduced virus production due to the removal of future virus factories. By contrast, a spatially explicit model leads to quite different results. Here we find that the firebreak mechanism reduces both viral load and immunopathology. Our study thus shows the potential benefits of GMAT and illustrates how spatial effects may be crucial for the quantitative understanding of infection dynamics and immune responses.

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