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


Kuhns, M. S., Girvin, A. T., Klein, L. O., Chen, R., Jensen, K. D., Newell, E. W., Huppa, J. B., Lillemeier, B. F., Huse, M., Chien, Y., Garcia, K. C., & Davis, M. M. (2010). Evidence for a functional sidedness to the alphabetaTCR. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(11), 5094-9.

The T cell receptor (TCR) and associated CD3gammaepsilon, deltaepsilon, and zetazeta signaling dimers allow T cells to discriminate between different antigens and respond accordingly, but our knowledge of how these parts fit and work together is incomplete. In this study, we provide additional evidence that the CD3 heterodimers congregate on one side of the TCR in both the alphabeta and gammadeltaTCR-CD3 complexes. We also report that the other side of the alphabetaTCR mediates homotypic alphabetaTCR interactions and signaling. Specifically, an erythropoietin receptor-based dimerization assay was used to show that, upon complex assembly, the CD3epsilon chains of two CD3 heterodimers are arranged side-by-side in both the alphabeta and gammadeltaTCR-CD3 complexes. This system was also used to show that alphabetaTCRs can dimerize in the cell membrane and that mutating the unusual outer strands of the Calpha domain impairs this dimerization. Finally, we present data showing that, for CD4 T cells, the mutations that impair alphabetaTCR dimerization also alter ligand-induced calcium mobilization, TCR accumulation at the site of pMHC contact, and polarization toward the site of antigen contact. These data reveal a "functional-sidedness" to the alphabetaTCR constant region, with dimerization occurring on the side of the TCR opposite from where the CD3 heterodimers are located.

Chambers, C. A., Kuhns, M. S., Egen, J. G., & Allison, J. P. (2001). CTLA-4-mediated inhibition in regulation of T cell responses: mechanisms and manipulation in tumor immunotherapy. Annual review of immunology, 19, 565-94.

The T cell compartment of adaptive immunity provides vertebrates with the potential to survey for and respond specifically to an incredible diversity of antigens. The T cell repertoire must be carefully regulated to prevent unwanted responses to self. In the periphery, one important level of regulation is the action of costimulatory signals in concert with T cell antigen-receptor (TCR) signals to promote full T cell activation. The past few years have revealed that costimulation is quite complex, involving an integration of activating signals and inhibitory signals from CD28 and CTLA-4 molecules, respectively, with TCR signals to determine the outcome of a T cell's encounter with antigen. Newly emerging data suggest that inhibitory signals mediated by CTLA-4 not only can determine whether T cells become activated, but also can play a role in regulating the clonal representation in a polyclonal response. This review primarily focuses on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of regulation by CTLA-4 and its manipulation as a strategy for tumor immunotherapy.

Huse, M., Klein, L. O., Girvin, A. T., Faraj, J. M., Li, Q., Kuhns, M. S., & Davis, M. M. (2007). Spatial and temporal dynamics of T cell receptor signaling with a photoactivatable agonist. Immunity, 27(1), 76-88.

The precise timing of signals downstream of the T cell receptor (TCR) is poorly understood. To address this problem, we prepared major histocompatibility complexes containing an antigenic peptide that is biologically inert until exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV irradiation of these complexes in contact with cognate T cells enabled the high-resolution temporal analysis of signaling. Phosphorylation of the LAT adaptor molecule was observed in 4 s, and diacylglycerol production and calcium flux was observed in 6-7 s. TCR activation also induced cytoskeletal polarization within 2 min. Antibody blockade of CD4 reduced the intensity of LAT phosphorylation and the speed of calcium flux. Furthermore, strong desensitization of diacylglycerol production, but not LAT phosphorylation, occurred shortly after TCR activation, suggesting that different molecular events play distinct signal-processing roles. These results establish the speed and localization of early signaling steps, and have important implications regarding the overall structure of the network.

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.