During chronic stimulation, CD8+ T cells acquire an exhausted phenotype characterized by expression of inhibitory receptors, down-modulation of effector function, and metabolic impairments. T cell exhaustion protects from excessive immunopathology but limits clearance of virus-infected or tumor cells. We transcriptionally profiled antigen-specific T cells from mice infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus strains that cause acute or chronic disease. T cell exhaustion during chronic infection was driven by high amounts of T cell receptor (TCR)-induced transcription factors IRF4, BATF, and NFATc1. These regulators promoted expression of inhibitory receptors, including PD-1, and mediated impaired cellular metabolism. Furthermore, they repressed the expression of TCF1, a transcription factor required for memory T cell differentiation. Reducing IRF4 expression restored the functional and metabolic properties of antigen-specific T cells and promoted memory-like T cell development. These findings indicate that IRF4 functions as a central node in a TCR-responsive transcriptional circuit that establishes and sustains T cell exhaustion during chronic infection.
During chronic stimulation, CD8+ T cells acquire an exhausted phenotype characterized by expression of inhibitory receptors, loss of effector function, and metabolic impairments. Man et al. have identified a transcriptional module consisting of the TCR-induced transcription factors IRF4, BATF, and NFATc1 that drives T cell exhaustion and impairs memory T cell development.