Immunological exhaustion: How to make a disparate concept operational?


by Hannah Kaminski, Maël Lemoine, Thomas Pradeu

Author summary

In this essay, we have written a critical review on immunological exhaustion. We believe that this widely used concept often remains in fact imprecise because there exist 3 different approaches to exhaustion, namely, in terms of dysfunction, cause, and marker, and those are not sufficiently well distinguished and articulated in most scientific papers. We also propose to talk about “exhaustion” for and only for the phenomena in which all 3 approaches are aligned. This can be called the “convergence strategy”: T cells would be described as “exhausted” if and only if they are simultaneously dysfunctional, express given markers such as programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1), and induced by a specific cause such as chronicity. This strategy could be perfectly reasonable, and we see much value in adopting it, because it would force everyone to be more specific and rigorous when talking about exhaustion. Clarifying the characteristics of cells defined as “exhausted,” and using a convergent strategy to define T-cell exhaustion could have major experimental and clinical consequences, including for viral infections such as the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

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