Are lymph nodes really essential for successful immunizations? We found that the liver can compensate for missing lymphoid structures in initiating cellular, but not antibody-mediated, immunity.
Subcutaneous immunization delivers antigen (Ag) to local Ag-presenting cells that subsequently migrate into draining lymph nodes (LNs). There, they initiate the activation and expansion of lymphocytes specific for their cognate Ag. In mammals, the structural environment of secondary lymphoid tissues (SLTs) is considered essential for the initiation of adaptive immunity. Nevertheless, cold-blooded vertebrates can initiate potent systemic immune responses even though they lack conventional SLTs. The emergence of lymph nodes provided mammals with drastically improved affinity maturation of B cells. Here, we combine the use of different strains of alymphoplastic mice and T cell migration mutants with an experimental paradigm in which the site of Ag delivery is distant from the site of priming and inflammation. We demonstrate that in mammals, SLTs serve primarily B cell priming and affinity maturation, whereas the induction of T cell-driven immune responses can occur outside of SLTs. We found that mice lacking conventional SLTs generate productive systemic CD4- as well as CD8-mediated responses, even under conditions in which draining LNs are considered compulsory for the initiation of adaptive immunity. We describe an alternative pathway for the induction of cell-mediated immunity (CMI), in which Ag-presenting cells sample Ag and migrate into the liver where they induce neo-lymphoid aggregates. These structures are insufficient to support antibody affinity maturation and class switching, but provide a novel surrogate environment for the initiation of CMI.
Lymph nodes (LNs) are believed to be the most important tissues initiating immune responses by facilitating the activation of T and B lymphocytes. Mice lacking such LNs (called alymphoplastic) are severely immune compromised and resistant to immunizations. We discovered that the immune-deficiency of such alymphoplastic mice is actually not caused by the loss of LNs, but rather by the underlying genetic lesion. Surprisingly, mice lacking all lymph nodes can still mount potent T cell-mediated immune responses. We also discovered that T and B cells have completely different structural requirements for their activation/maturation. Whereas B cells rely on LNs to become efficient antibody-producing cells, T cells can be activated successfully outside of such dedicated tissues. So—in the absence of LNs—antigens delivered by immunization are actively transported into the liver where cellular immunity is initiated. The mammalian fetal liver is responsible for the early formation of blood and immune cells, and we propose that the adult liver can still provide a niche for T cell–antigen encounters. During evolution, T and B cells emerged simultaneously, allowing cold-blooded vertebrates (which lack LNs) to launch adaptive immune responses. The development of LNs in mammals coincided with a drastic improvement in antibody affinity maturation, whereas T cells remain LN-independent to this day.