Weiming Yuan, PhD

Associate Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology

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NKT cells are an unconventional subset of T cells co-expressing T-cell receptor (TCR) and typical surface receptors for NK cells. In contrast to conventional adaptive T cells and B cells, NKT cells have features of both innate and adaptive arms of immune systems. Over the last several decades, NKT cells have been found to influence diverse immune responses, including immunity to infectious diseases and tumor, autoimmune diseases and allergies. Although the exact function of NKT cells during various immune responses remains elusive, recent studies have suggested that NKT cells may have been evolved primarily for their role in antimicrobial immune responses. Most NKT cells express identical or similar T cell receptors and are often called invariant NKT cells or iNKT cells. Distinct from conventional CD4+ and CD8+ T cells, iNKT cells can be activated by either exogenous or endogenous lipid ligands. In some bacterial infection, bacteria-derived exogenous lipid ligands can be directly recognized by iNKT cell TCR. In most other bacterial or viral infection, dendritic cell-derived cytokines and endogenous lipid ligands are sufficient to activate iNKT cells. During immune responses, NKT cells are rapidly activated to produce cytokines such as g-interferon (IFN-g) and IL-4, and their activation plays a key role in the development and regulation of adaptive immune responses to microbes.

Due to the critical antiviral roles of NKT cells, herpes viruses have evolved strategies to antagonize this function. In vivo, NKT cells are mostly activated by lipid antigen presentation by CD1d. Previously, our studies have shown that herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1), a common herpes virus in humans, has evolved to down-regulate CD1d expression in antigen-presenting cells and thereby inhibiting NKT cell activation (Yuan, W. et al., Nature Immunol. 2006, 7, 835-842). Dissecting the molecular mechanism of HSV-1 evasion of CD1d antigen presentation and NKT cell function will provide novel targets for antiviral designs to improve the care for patients already latently infected with HSVs. Furthermore to break down the viral immune evasion mechanism will help to improve the immunogenecity and therefore the protection efficiency of vaccine candidates to prevent new infections. We have recently identified a HSV-1 protein kinase, US3, that collaborates with viral glycoprotein B to down-regulate CD1d expression in antigen presenting cells by suppressing CD1d recycling (Rao, P. et al., J. Virol. 2011, 85: 8093-8104; Ran, X. et al., J. Virol. 2015, 89: 6646-6655). Currently we are pursuing how US3, through its kinase activity, modulates CD1d recycling pathway at both molecular and cellular levels. Remarkably, while US3-difficient virus grows well in vitro, its replication is severely attenuated in vivo, suggesting that the evasion of the CD1d-restricted NKT cell function plays a critical role in viral pathogenesis.

An emerging research field in my lab is human-specific CD1d/NKT antigen presentation. Despite a high degree of conservation, subtle but important differences exist between the CD1d antigen presentation pathways of humans and mice. These differences may account for the minimal success of natural killer T (NKT) cell-based antitumor therapies in human clinical trials, which contrast strongly with the powerful antitumor effects in conventional mouse models. In order to study human-specific CD1d antigen presentation pathway in vivo, we have recently generated novel mouse models with CD1d/NKT system humanized (Wen, X., et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2013, 110: 2963-2968; Wen, X., et al., J. Immunol. 2015, 195: 1459-1469). Characterization of these new models and application of the models to anti-tumor research are currently ongoing.


  • SARS-CoV-2 induces blood-brain barrier and choroid plexus barrier impairments and vascular inflammation in mice J Med Virol. 2024 May; 96(5):e29671. . View in PubMed
  • Potent NKT cell ligands overcome SARS-CoV-2 immune evasion to mitigate viral pathogenesis in mouse models PLoS Pathog. 2023 03; 19(3):e1011240. . View in PubMed
  • Microglia innate immune response contributes to the antiviral defense and blood-CSF barrier function in human choroid plexus organoids during HSV-1 infection J Med Virol. 2023 02; 95(2):e28472. . View in PubMed
  • SARS-CoV-2 Nsp5 Demonstrates Two Distinct Mechanisms Targeting RIG-I and MAVS To Evade the Innate Immune Response mBio. 2021 10 26; 12(5):e0233521. . View in PubMed
  • Mathematical modeling of interaction between innate and adaptive immune responses in COVID-19 and implications for viral pathogenesis J Med Virol. 2020 09; 92(9):1615-1628. . View in PubMed
  • Comment on “Central Nervous System Involvement by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus -2 (SARS-CoV-2)” J Med Virol. 2020 09; 92(9):1399-1400. . View in PubMed
  • a-GalCer and iNKT Cell-Based Cancer Immunotherapy: Realizing the Therapeutic Potentials Front Immunol. 2019; 10:1126. . View in PubMed
  • Transcriptional regulation of autophagy-lysosomal function in BRAF-driven melanoma progression and chemoresistance Nat Commun. 2019 04 12; 10(1):1693. . View in PubMed
  • Herpes Simplex Virus 1 Specifically Targets Human CD1d Antigen Presentation To Enhance Its Pathogenicity J Virol. 2018 11 15; 92(22). . View in PubMed
  • A Viral Deamidase Targets the Helicase Domain of RIG-I to Block RNA-Induced Activation Cell Host Microbe. 2016 Dec 14; 20(6):770-784. . View in PubMed
  • Herpes simplex virus downregulation of secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor enhances human papillomavirus type 16 infection J Gen Virol. 2016 Feb; 97(2):422-434. . View in PubMed
  • Cell Rep. 2016 07 12; 16(2):405-418. . View in PubMed
  • Akt Kinase-Mediated Checkpoint of cGAS DNA Sensing Pathway Cell Rep. 2015 Oct 13; 13(2):440-9. . View in PubMed
  • A Subset of CD8aß+ Invariant NKT Cells in a Humanized Mouse Model J Immunol. 2015 Aug 15; 195(4):1459-69. . View in PubMed
  • Herpes Simplex Virus 1 US3 Phosphorylates Cellular KIF3A To Downregulate CD1d Expression J Virol. 2015 Jul; 89(13):6646-55. . View in PubMed
  • Exploring the Therapeutic Potentials of iNKT Cells for Anti-HBV Treatment Pathogens. 2014 Jul 03; 3(3):563-76. . View in PubMed
  • Humanizing mice for the identification of novel anticancer lipids targeting iNKT cells Oncoimmunology. 2013 Aug 01; 2(8):e25475. . View in PubMed
  • Human CD1d knock-in mouse model demonstrates potent antitumor potential of human CD1d-restricted invariant natural killer T cells Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Feb 19; 110(8):2963-8. . View in PubMed
  • Herpes simplex virus 1 glycoprotein B and US3 collaborate to inhibit CD1d antigen presentation and NKT cell function J Virol. 2011 Aug; 85(16):8093-104. . View in PubMed