Michael S Kuhns

Michael S Kuhns

Associate Professor, Immunobiology
Associate Professor, Genetics - GIDP
Associate Professor, BIO5 Institute
Primary Department
Department Affiliations
(520) 626-6461

Work Summary

Work Summary

Michael Kuhns' research program is focused on (i) increasing our basic understanding of how T cell fate decisions are made (e.g. development, activation, differentiation, effector functions), and (ii) increasing their working knowledge of how to manipulate these decisions to direct T cells towards a desired outcome, such as increasing responses to vaccines or tumors, preventing transplant rejection, or attenuating autoimmunity.

Research Interest

What we’re interested in: For all vertebrates, from mice to humans, vaccine-induced and naturally primed immunity to pathogens require that coordinated, multi-cellular responses emerge from a myriad of ‘conversations’ that take place between cells of the immune system. These conversations occur via cytokines and chemokines that are secreted by one cell and detected via receptors on other cells. They also occur via direct contacts between membrane-bound molecules at the interface between two cells. Ultimately, these conversations are responsible for insuring that an appropriate immune response occurs in the appropriate place, and at the appropriate time, to fight an infection without inducing an inappropriate response to commensal organisms or self-antigens. The molecules on T cells that are involved in these conversations include but are not limited to: the T cell receptor (TCR), which provides clonotypic antigen specificity to T cells; the CD3δε, γε, and ζζ signaling dimers that connect the TCR to the intracellular signaling machinery; the CD8 and CD4 coreceptors that provide major histocompatibility molecule (MHC)-restriction for T cells that recognize antigenic peptides bound to class I or II MHC, respectively; and costimulatory molecules, such as CD28, that provide information about the activation state of an antigen presenting cell (APC) and thus the context in which an antigen occurs. We are interested in understanding how the individual contributions from this chorus of molecules are integrated to achieve the critical balance between tolerance of self-antigens and protective immunity against pathogenic infection. Specifically, we are working to understand how the information that is critical for T cells to decide if and how they should respond to antigen is conveyed from an antigen presenting cell (APC) to a T cell. We are using a variety of classic molecular, cellular, and biochemical techniques, as well as more modern live cell imaging approaches, to probe the molecular mechanisms involved in these processes. We are also developing mouse model systems to determine how individual mechanisms contribute to T cell responses in vivo during pathogenic infection or autoimmunity. Altogether, our work is aimed at increasing our basic and practical appreciation of T cell responses and regulation.


Huse, M., Lillemeier, B. F., Kuhns, M. S., Chen, D. S., & Davis, M. M. (2006). T cells use two directionally distinct pathways for cytokine secretion. Nature immunology, 7(3), 247-55.

Activated T helper cells produce many cytokines, some of which are secreted through the immunological synapse toward the antigen-presenting cell. Here we have used immunocytochemistry, live-cell imaging and a surface-mediated secretion assay to show that there are two cytokine export pathways in T helper cells. Some cytokines, including interleukin 2 and interferon-gamma, were secreted into the synapse, whereas others, including tumor necrosis factor and the chemokine CCL3 (MIP-1alpha), were released multidirectionally. Each secretion pathway was associated with different trafficking proteins, indicating that they are molecularly distinct processes. These data suggest that T helper cells release some cytokines into the immunological synapse to impart specific communication and others multidirectionally to promote inflammation and to establish chemokine gradients.

Egen, J. G., Kuhns, M. S., & Allison, J. P. (2002). CTLA-4: new insights into its biological function and use in tumor immunotherapy. Nature immunology, 3(7), 611-8.

The discovery of multiple costimulatory cell surface molecules that influence the course of T cell activation has increased our appreciation of the complexity of the T cell response. It remains clear, however, that CD28 and cytotoxic T lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4) are the critical costimulatory receptors that determine the early outcome of stimulation through the T cell antigen receptor (TCR). Details of how the T cell integrates TCR stimulation with the costimulatory signals of CD28 and the inhibitory signals of CTLA-4 remain to be established, but unique features of the cell biology of CTLA-4 provide important insights into its function. We summarize here recent findings that suggest a previously unrecognized role for CTLA-4 in the regulation of T cell responses. We also describe preclinical and clinical results that indicate manipulation of CTLA-4 has considerable promise as a strategy for the immunotherapy of cancer.

Kuhns, M. S., & Davis, M. M. (2007). Disruption of extracellular interactions impairs T cell receptor-CD3 complex stability and signaling. Immunity, 26(3), 357-69.

The alphabeta T cell antigen receptor (TCR), in complex with the CD3deltavarepsilon, gammavarepsilon, and zetazeta signaling subunits, is the chief determinant for specific CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cell responses to self and foreign antigens. Although transmembrane domain charge interactions are critical for the assembly of the complex, the location of extracellular contacts between the TCR and CD3 subunits and their contributions to stability and signal transduction have not been defined. Here we used mutagenesis to demonstrate that the CD3deltavarepsilon and CD3gammavarepsilon subunits interact with the TCR via adjacent Calpha DE and Cbeta CC' loops, respectively. The TCR-CD3deltavarepsilon interactions helped stabilize CD3gammavarepsilon within the complex and were important for normal T cell and thymocyte responses to TCR engagement. These data demonstrate that extracellular TCR-CD3 subunit interactions contribute to the structural integrity and function of this multisubunit receptor.

Deshpande, N. R., Parrish, H. L., & Kuhns, M. S. (2015). Self-recognition drives the preferential accumulation of promiscuous CD4(+) T-cells in aged mice. eLife, 4, e05949.

T-cell recognition of self and foreign peptide antigens presented in major histocompatibility complex molecules (pMHC) is essential for life-long immunity. How the ability of the CD4(+) T-cell compartment to bind self- and foreign-pMHC changes over the lifespan remains a fundamental aspect of T-cell biology that is largely unexplored. We report that, while old mice (18-22 months) contain fewer CD4(+) T-cells compared with adults (8-12 weeks), those that remain have a higher intrinsic affinity for self-pMHC, as measured by CD5 expression. Old mice also have more cells that bind individual or multiple distinct foreign-pMHCs, and the fold increase in pMHC-binding populations is directly related to their CD5 levels. These data demonstrate that the CD4(+) T-cell compartment preferentially accumulates promiscuous constituents with age as a consequence of higher affinity T-cell receptor interactions with self-pMHC.

Kuhns, M. S., & Badgandi, H. B. (2012). Piecing together the family portrait of TCR-CD3 complexes. Immunological reviews, 250(1), 120-43.

The pre-T-cell receptor (TCR)-, αβTCR-, and γδTCR-CD3 complexes are members of a family of modular biosensors that are responsible for driving T-cell development, activation, and effector functions. They inform essential checkpoint decisions by relaying key information from their ligand-binding modules (TCRs) to their signaling modules (CD3γε + CD3δε and CD3ζζ) and on to the intracellular signaling apparatus. Their actions shape the T-cell repertoire, as well as T-cell-mediated immunity; yet, the mechanisms that underlie their activity remain an enigma. As with any molecular machine, understanding how they function depends upon understanding how their parts fit and work together. In the 30 years since the initial biochemical and genetic characterizations of the αβTCR, the structure and function of the individual components of these family members have been extensively characterized. Cumulatively, this information has allowed us to piece together a portrait of the αβTCR-CD3 complex and outline the form of the remaining family members. Here we review the known structural and functional characteristics of the components of these TCR-CD3 complex family members. We then discuss how these data have informed our understanding of the architecture of the αβTCR-CD3 complex as well as their implications for the other family members. The intent is to provide a framework for considering: (i) how these thematically similar complexes diverge to execute their specific functions and (ii) how our knowledge of the form and function of these distinct family members can cross-inform our understanding of the other family members.