Support the Department of Immunobiology


Janko Nikolich-Zugich, MD, PhD

Professor and Chair, Department of Immunobiology
Primary Affiliation: 

Professor and Chair, Dept. of Immunobiology

Co-Director, Arizona Center on Aging

University of Arizona College of Medicine

Other Affiliations: 
Elizabeth Bowman Professor in Medical Research Member, BIO5 Institute Member and Board Member, Arizona Cancer Center Professor, Departments of Medicine, College of Medicine, and Nutrition, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Member, McKnight Brain Center Affiliate Scientist, Oregon National Primate Research Center, Beaverton, OR

Janko Nikolich-Zugich received his MD from Belgrade University Medical School in 1984, subsequently receiving an MSc and a PhD in Immunology from the same University. Dr. Nikolich-Zugich worked from 1987 to 1990 as a Research Associate at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in the laboratory of Dr. Michael J. Bevan, FRS, NAS, HHMI. In 1990, he joined the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York as the Head of both the Flow Cytometry Core Facility and the Laboratory of T Cell Development. He served as an Assistant Professor (1990-1996) and an Associate Professor (1996-2001) at both the Cornell University Graduate School of Medical Sciences and the Division of Molecular Medicine in Cornell University School of Medicine. He was recipient of the Pew Biomedical Scholar Award and the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Scientist Award. Dr. Nikolich-Zugich moved to the Oregon Health & Science University in 2001, assuming position of Senior Scientist at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and joint appointments as a Professor (tenured) in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and a Senior Scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. He was member of the NIH Cellular and Molecular Immunology-B Study Section from 2003-2008, is member of multiple NIA and NIAID review panels, and is on the organizing or scientific committees for several international conferences and meetings. He was President of the American Aging Association in 2009-10. In 2008, Dr. Nikolich-Zugich moved to the University of Arizona to lead the Department of Immunobiology and the Arizona Center on Aging.  He can be reached by e-mail at

Research Overview: 

My laboratory is interested in the biology of T lymphocytes, particularly of CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL)  in health, infection and aging.  Our studies are performed in the context of the relationship between immune system and microorganisms (acute and persistent pathogens and normal flora) over the lifespan of the organism, with particular emphasis upon the age-related defects in immunity and defects in long-term homeostasis of the immune system.  


Figure 1. Two commonly encountered defects in T-cell biology with aging. A – Defect in T-cell signal transduction upon antigen recognition. Most of the evidence suggests that this defect is cell-autonomous. B – Disruption in T-cell population balance due to thymic involution, reduced production of new naïve T-cells, their utilization and conversion into memory cells and, eventually, their excessive homeostatic proliferation. Figure from Nikolich-Zugich, J., Nat. Rev. Immunol., 2008, with evidence for excessive homeostatic proliferation from Cicin-Sain, L. et al., PNAS USA 2007.  

Diagnosis of the most critical, primary defects in innate and adaptive immunity of the old age is being followed by studies to repair or modulate those defects by immune intervention as well as by tailored, rational vaccine design. Our studies are often pursued by vertical model integration - using broad and fundamental studies in rodents to crystallize questions to be asked and verified in non-human primates, leading to final and most relevant studies in humans. The main virus targets of these studies are the herpesviruses (HSV and CMV), pox (CPXV, VACV) and flaviviruses (chiefly the West Nile virus - WNV), although the research has more recently been broadened to bacteria (Listeria and Francisella). 

All of our studies fall under the two broad topics: (i) understanding which T cell, particularly CD8 T cell, properties are most critical for protective immunity; and (ii) elucidating how are T cell maintained for life and why their biology is disturbed with old age. These are described in more detail below.

Cytotoxic T lymphocyte biology and antiviral activity

One main topic of research of my lab focuses is the selection, recognition, function, and homeostasis of cytotoxic T lymphocytes. We employ a combination of structural, molecular, transgenic, and functional approaches, using crystallographic modeling, TCR sequence and CDR3 length analysis, soluble and cell-bound TCR:peptide:MHC interactions, transgenesis and site-directed mutagenesis, and functional immunological assays. The emphasis of our approach is on following and manipulating the CTL response in vivo. This allows us to precisely dissect the CTL recognition, CTL repertoire and CTL activation in a setting where CTLs combat natural pathogens or cancer in the course of a lifespan of an organism.


Figure 2: Structures of the MHC class I molecules H-2Kb and H-2Kbm8, complexed to an altered peptide ligand (H2E) based upon the naturally occurring peptide from HSV-1 gB (SSIEFARL). Figure illustrates potential restoration of hydrogen bonds in the MHC pocket B, located away from the TCR contact area. Biological evidence shows that such interactions can profoundly impact T-cell recognition and immune defense, as evidenced from our prior work (Dyall, R. et al., J. Exp. Med. 1996). Figure from Miley, M.J. et al., J. Exp. Med. 2004

The projects include:

  • CTL crossreactivity, long-term maintenance and positive selection
  • Parameters of T cell efficacy in viral infection and vaccine development.

Immune senescence and its correction

Our second major interest is to understand decline of the immune function with aging, which is believed to be one of the contributing causes to the morbidity and mortality in old age. We are studying the fundamental mechanisms behind this decline in a series of studies in rodents and primates. Maintenance of T-cell repertoire diversity, T-cell homeostasis and the emergence of age-related T-cell clonal expansions (TCE) are all being studied.



Another fascinating problem is the interaction of the immune system with life-long chronic and persisting pathogens from the herpesvirus family, and the impact of this interaction upon the aging immune system. These studies should pave way for the immune reconstitution and vaccine engineering experiments that will ameliorate and treat the undesirable consequences of immune senescence.


The projects include:

  • Biology of age-related T-cell clonal expansions, homeostasis of CTL responses in aging and the impact of persistent viruses upon immune senescence

Figure 3. Spectratyping (“Immunoscope”) method to assess the complexity of TCR utilization in the course of a biological process (infection,  aging, homeostatic proliferation, etc.). For description of this technique, please see our prior publications (Messaoudi, I. et al., Science, 2002; Messaoudi, I. et al., J. Exp. Med., 2004).  

  • Vaccination and immune senescence in primates
  • Nutrient sensing, longevity, and healthspan  in T-cell function
  • Immunological basis of age-related vulnerability to West Nile virus


Figure 4. Left – transmission cycle of the West Nile virus. Mosquitoes and birds are natural and primary hosts, however, the virus can infect (via mosquito bite) a wide variety of dead-end hosts. The virus is particularly dangerous to older adults over the age of 70. Right – importance of adaptive immunity in combating WNV. Rag-KO mice, which lack T and B cells, die of massive WNV infiltration and neuropathology (J. Uhrlaub, J. Brien, C. Wiley et al, unpublished).

Finally, we study the process of aging, understanding that this is a quintessential complex process which is best understood from an interdisciplinary angle and taking into account multiple cells, tissues and organs affected by it. Multidisciplinary studies on quality of organ function in metabolic manipulations of longevity are currently in progress.




Aging of the Immune System YouTube Video (51:04)- Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich



Lab Manager: 
Jennifer Uhrlaub
Lab Manager Email:
Lab Phone Number: 
(520) 626-8401

Selected Publications


Smithey MJ, Uhrlaub JL, Li G, Vukmanovic-Stejic M, Akbar AN and Nikolich-Zugich J: Lost in translation: mice, men and cutaneous immunity in old age. Biogerontology 2014 Jul 16. [Epub ahead of print]



Pugh JL, Sukhina AS, Seed TM, Manley NR, Sempowski GH, van den Brink MR, Smithey MJ and Nikolich-Zugich J:  Histone deacetylation critically determines T cell subset radiosensitivity. J. Immunol. 2014, 193:1451.


Goldberg EL, Smithey MJ, Lutes LK, Uhrlaub JL, & Nikolich-Zugich J: Immune memory-boosting dose of rapamycin impairs macrophage vescicle acidification and curtails glycolysis in effector CD8 cells, impairing defense against acute infection. J. Immunol. 2014, 193:757.


Sansoni P, Vescovini R, Fagnoni FF, Akbar A, Arens R, Chiu YL, Cičin-Šain L, Dechanet-Merville J, Derhovanessian E, Ferrando-Martinez S, Franceschi C, Frasca D, Fulöp T, Furman D, Gkrania-Klotsas E, Goodrum F, Grubeck-Loebenstein B, Hurme M, Kern F, Lilleri D, López-Botet M, Maier AB, Marandu T, Marchant A, Matheï C, Moss P, Muntasell A, Remmerswaal EB, Riddell NE, Rothe K, Sauce D, Shin EC, Simanek AM, Smithey MJ, Söderberg-Nauclér C, Solana R, Thomas PG, van Lier R, Pawelec G, Nikolich-Zugich J:  New advances in CMV and immunosenesence. Exp. Gerontology. 2014, 55:54.


Renkema KR, Li G, Wu A, Smithey MJ and Nikolich-Zugich J: Two separate defects affecting true naive or virtual memory T cell precursors combine to reduce naive T cell responses with aging. J. Immunol. 2013, 192:151.


Li G**, Smithey MJ**, Rudd BD, Nikolich-Zugich J: Age-associated alterations in CD8 alpha dendritic cells limits efficient CD8 T cell expansion. Aging Cell. 2012 Dec 11: 968.


Smithey MJ, Li G, Venturi V, Davenport MP and Nikolich-Zugich J: Life-long persistent viral infection impairs CD8 T cell immunity to a new pathogen in late life. J. Immunol. 2012, 189:5356. 


Nikolich-Zugich J, Li G, Uhrlaub JL, Renkema KR, Smithey MJ: Age-related changes in CD8 T cell homeostasis and immunity to infection. Semin. Immunol. 2012 Oct;24(5):356-64.


Smithey MJ, Renkema KR, Rudd BD, Nikolich-Zugich J: Increased apoptosis, curtailed expansion and incomplete differentiation of CD8+ T cells combine to increase susceptibility to L. monocytogenes in old mice. Eur. J. Immunol. 2011, 41:1352.


Lab Staff

Graduate Student
Name Phone
John Davies (520) 626-8401
Nico Contreras (520) 626-8401
Research Staff
Name Phone
Dragana Nikolich-Zugich, BA (520) 626-8401
Jose Padilla-Torres, BSc, LATg (520) 626-5044
Jennifer Uhrlaub, BA, MS (520) 626-0554
Carmine Martinez (520) 626-6610
Carly Cabel (520) 626-8401
Justin Frere (520) 626-8401
Tolulop Obafemi (520) 626-8401
Post Doctoral Fellow
Name Phone
Vesna Pulko, PhD (520) 626-8401
Heather Thompson, PhD (520) 626-8401
Mladen Jergovic, PhD (520) 626-8401

MD Belgrade University Medical School 1984

PhD Immunology, Belgrade University Medical School 1993


1656 E. Mabel Street

P.O. Box 245221

Tucson, AZ 85724-5221



Medical Research Building Suite 240


(520) 626-6888