Heterogeneous, delayed-onset killing by multiple-hitting T cells: Stochastic simulations to assess methods for analysis of imaging data

CC-BY-4.0: Richard J. Beck, Dario I. Bijker, Joost B. Beltman


Although quantitative insights into the killing behaviour of Cytotoxic T Lymphocytes (CTLs) are necessary for the rational design of immune-based therapies, CTL killing function remains insufficiently characterised. One established model of CTL killing treats CTL cytotoxicity as a Poisson process, based on the assumption that CTLs serially kill antigen-presenting target cells via delivery of lethal hits, each lethal hit corresponding to a single injection of cytotoxic proteins into the target cell cytoplasm. Contradicting this model, a recent in vitro study of individual CTLs killing targets over a 12-hour period found significantly greater heterogeneity in CTL killing performance than predicted by Poisson-based killing. The observed killing process was dynamic and varied between CTLs, with the best performing CTLs exhibiting a marked increase in killing during the final hours of the experiments, along with a “burst killing” kinetic. Despite a search for potential differences between CTLs, no mechanistic explanation for the heterogeneous killing kinetics was found. Here we have used stochastic simulations to assess whether target cells might require multiple hits from CTLs before undergoing apoptosis, in order to verify whether multiple-hitting could explain the late onset, burst killing dynamics observed in vitro. We found that multiple-hitting from CTLs was entirely consistent with the observed killing kinetics. Moreover, the number of available targets and the spatiotemporal kinetics of CTL:target interactions influenced the realised CTL killing rate. We subsequently used realistic, spatial simulations to assess methods for estimating the hitting rate and the number of hits required for target death, to be applied to microscopy data of individual CTLs killing targets. We found that measuring the cumulative duration of individual contacts that targets have with CTLs would substantially improve accuracy when estimating the killing kinetics of CTLs.

PLoS Computational Biology