Ground-breaking discovery of cornea T cells protecting eyes from infection

The discovery of T cells in the cornea, which patrol and fight viral infections, is expanding our understanding of the eye’s immune response.

The eye’s cornea produces an immune response to fight viral infections without damaging our vision, Department of Microbiology and Immunology Professor Scott Mueller and his team, have found.

The world-first discovery, published in Cell Reports on 25 May, has expanded our understanding of the eye’s immune response to infections. While it was previously believed T cells are not found in healthy corneas, this research showed long-living memory T cells that patrol and fight viral infections are, in fact, present in the cornea.

Professor Meuller, a laboratory head at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and lead author, shared the significance of this research.

“Current understanding that T cells are not found in healthy corneas needs to be reconsidered, as our discovery shows tissue-resident memory T cells entering the cornea and remaining there for long periods.”

Professor Mueller and the team -  including Dr Keit Loi, Bachelor of Biomedicine alumni - studied cornea cells in mice infected with Herpes Simplex Virus. Using a multiphoton microscope that provides live images of biological tissues, they discovered that long-living memory T cells produced in the mice’s eyes to fight off , infection remained in the cornea after eliminating the virus to ward off future reinfection.

Through advanced imaging of the eye in healthy people, it has also been revealed that immune cells patrol the cornea in humans.

“Our findings will improve the understanding of how to protect our eyes from infections that cause permanent blindness, such as Herpes Simplex Virus,” Professor Mueller said.

“This also has implications for understanding chronic conditions such as dry eye disease and common eye allergies where unwanted T cells might also cause disease.”

Find more about the research underway by the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.