Death and the Doctor
“Death and the Doctor”
Published by William Humphrey, 1777 

Last April I commented on a series of experiments  that used intravital microscopy to visualize cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) attacking a tumor. 1 Immensely cool though the movie is, I noted that I was surprised by their estimate of the rate of cell killing:

Another surprising finding — which is so different from previous work in different systems that I’m hesitant to believe it — is the timing of cell killing. Previous studies (such as the von Andrian paper2 that produced this video) have suggested that CTL kill their targets in something under an hour; maybe 30 minutes or even less. Here. Bousso’s group find that the tumor cells take something like 6 hours to be killed. That’s such a large difference — and has such important implications for effectiveness of CTL killing — that, as I say, I’d like to see it confirmed before I take it to the bank.3

A new paper4 has run another estimate of the time it takes for a CTL to kill its target, and like most of the previous work, they conclude that it takes about a half-hour, give or take, to kill a target. They do come up with a fairly wide range of killing times, that depend on the target and the timing of the immune response — at the peak of the immune response when there are many cells the targets are killed faster (between 2 and 14 minutes), while at later stages, when there aren’t so many CTL, targets have half-lives of 48 min and 2.8 hr.

CTL killing a target
CTL killing a target cell
(From a video by von Andrian)
 

This is not quite looking at the same thing as the video showed, though. In this paper, they were looking at the bulk effects, and that’s what almost all the previous studies have also looked at. The video was looking at a one-on-one interaction. What if targets are killed faster when several CTL gang up on them? Here, having different numbers of CTL caused the half-life of the targets to increase between about 10 and 20-fold. But this is probably simply because, with fewer CTL present, it took longer for them to find the target: Once a CTL found the target, the rate of killing was if anything faster than effectors at killing (“we find that LCMV-specific memory CD8 T cells kill more target cells per day than effectors”). 5

This is actually a disagreement with a previous paper 6 that also looked at killing rates, and offered evidence that different types of CTL can have different killing rates:

We reanalyse data previously used to estimate killing rates of CTL specific for two epitopes of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) in mice and show that, contrary to previous estimates the “killing rate” of effector CTL is approximately twice that of memory CTL. 6

However, whichever of those studies is correct , both suggest that different types of CTL can have different killing efficiencies. This goes back to a point I’ve made several times, as have others (see e.g. Michael Palm’s TAG post here and references therein, including the comments by me and by Otto Yang) — CTL aren’t a uniform batch, and different kinds of CTL may have different types as well as rates of activities.

Returning to the intravital microscopy killing rate of 6 hours:7 I wonder if that reflects the nature of the CTL there, perhaps influenced by the tumor environment. Tumors are notoriously resistant to killing (probably because those tumors that are not resistant to killing were, um, killed, before they ever become clinically detectable) and it seems quite likely that an immunosuppressive tumor environment may change CTL types, or activities. I wonder if that would offer some way of intervention. Speeding up the rate of CTL killing from 6 hours to 30 minutes seems like it would be a huge influence of clearance of tumors. On the other hand, of course, it may be that the targets themselves are much more resistant to killing (again because tumor cells have been through selection to be resistant to the immune system) and cranking up CTL won’t make much difference.


  1. Breart, B., Lemaître, F., Celli, S., Bousso, P. (2008). Two-photon imaging of intratumoral CD8+ T cell cytotoxic activity during adoptive T cell therapy in mice. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 118(4), 1390-1397. DOI: 10.1172/JCI34388 []
  2. Mempel, T. R., Pittet, M. J., Khazaie, K., Weninger, W., Weissleder, R., von Boehmer, H., and von Andrian, U. H. (2006). Regulatory T cells reversibly suppress cytotoxic T cell function independent of effector differentiation. Immunity 25, 129-141.[]
  3. From this post[]
  4. V. V. Ganusov, R. J. De Boer (2008). Estimating In Vivo Death Rates of Targets due to CD8 T-Cell-Mediated Killing Journal of Virology, 82 (23), 11749-11757 DOI: 10.1128/JVI.01128-08[]
  5. There are also other videos of one-to-one killing, at least in vitro, that are more consistent with the 30-minute ballpark; see the image to the right for one example.[]
  6. Yates A, Graw F, Barber DL, Ahmed R, Regoes RR, et al. (2007) Revisiting Estimates of CTL Killing Rates In Vivo. PLoS ONE 2(12): e1301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001301[][]
  7. Which I have become more relaxed about since my earlier skeptical comment[]