Antigen-specific T helper cells present in peripheral blood at very low frequencies are capable of rapid clonal expansion during antigenic challenge. The exquisite specificity of this response provides for activation and expansion of a very select cohort of T cells, a feature we have used to directly identify and quantify human epitope-specific T helper cells from peripheral blood. Soluble tetramerized class II MHC molecules, loaded with an immunodominant peptide from hemagglutinin (HA) and labeled with fluorescent dyes, were constructed and used to directly identify antigen-specific T cells from influenza-immune individuals. After 7 days of proliferation in response to stimulation by HA peptide or whole influenza vaccine, cells staining positive with the HA tetramer had undergone between 6 and 9 divisions and were CD3+, CD4+, CD25+, and CD8–, characteristic of activated T helper cells responding to antigen. The HA epitope-specific component of the complex response to whole influenza vaccine represented a major subset of proliferating T helper cells. Soluble class II tetramers allow a direct approach for the analysis of immunodominant antigenic specificities. The identification of antigen-specific T helper cells in the peripheral blood provides a means for tracking the immune response against infectious agents and in autoimmune disease.
Erik J. Novak, Andrew W. Liu, Gerald T. Nepom, William W. Kwok