Beyond model antigens: high-dimensional methods for the analysis of antigen-specific T cells

Adaptive immune responses often begin with the formation of a molecular complex between a T-cell receptor (TCR) and a peptide antigen bound to a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule. These complexes are highly variable, however, due to the polymorphism of MHC genes, the random, inexact recombination of TCR gene segments, and the vast array of possible self and pathogen peptide antigens. As a result, it has been very difficult to comprehensively study the TCR repertoire or identify and track more than a few antigen-specific T cells in mice or humans. For mouse studies, this had led to a reliance on model antigens and TCR transgenes. The study of limited human clinical samples, in contrast, requires techniques that can simultaneously survey TCR phenotype and function, and TCR reactivity to many T-cell epitopes. Thanks to recent advances in single-cell and cytometry methodologies, as well as high-throughput sequencing of the TCR repertoire, we now have or will soon have the tools needed to comprehensively analyze T-cell responses in health and disease.

Newell EW, Davis MM. | Nature Biotechnology 2014

Combinatorial tetramer staining and mass cytometry analysis facilitate T-cell epitope mapping and characterization.

It is currently not possible to predict which epitopes will be recognized by T cells in different individuals. This is a barrier to the thorough analysis and understanding of T-cell responses after vaccination or infection. Here, by combining mass cytometry with combinatorial peptide-MHC tetramer staining, we have developed a method allowing the rapid and simultaneous identification and characterization of T cells specific for many epitopes. We use this to screen up to 109 different peptide-MHC tetramers in a single human blood sample, while still retaining at least 23 labels to analyze other markers of T-cell phenotype and function. Among 77 candidate rotavirus epitopes, we identified six T-cell epitopes restricted to human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-A*0201 in the blood of healthy individuals. T cells specific for epitopes in the rotavirus VP3 protein displayed a distinct phenotype and were present at high frequencies in intestinal epithelium. This approach should be useful for the comprehensive analysis of T-cell responses to infectious diseases or vaccines.

Newell EW, et al. | Nature Biotechnology 2013

Cytokine patterns of virus-specific T cells

Cytotoxic CD8(+) T lymphocytes directly kill infected or aberrant cells and secrete proinflammatory cytokines. By using metal-labeled probes and mass spectrometric analysis (cytometry by time-of-flight, or CyTOF) of human CD8(+) T cells, we analyzed the expression of many more proteins than previously possible with fluorescent labels, including surface markers, cytokines, and antigen specificity with modified peptide-MHC tetramers. With 3-dimensional principal component analysis (3D-PCA) to display phenotypic diversity, we observed a relatively uniform pattern of variation in all subjects tested, highlighting the interrelatedness of previously described subsets and the continuous nature of CD8(+) T cell differentiation. These data also showed much greater complexity in the CD8(+) T cell compartment than previously appreciated, including a nearly combinatorial pattern of cytokine expression, with distinct niches occupied by virus-specific cells. This large degree of functional diversity even between cells with the same specificity gives CD8(+) T cells a remarkable degree of flexibility in responding to pathogens.

Newell et al. | Immunity 2012

Interrogating the repertoire: broadening the scope of peptide-MHC multimer analysis.

Labelling antigen-specific T cells with peptide-MHC multimers has provided an invaluable way to monitor T cell-mediated immune responses. A number of recent developments in this technology have made these multimers much easier to make and use in large numbers. Furthermore, enrichment techniques have provided a greatly increased sensitivity that allows the analysis of the naive T cell repertoire directly. Thus, we can expect a flood of new information to emerge in the coming years.

Davis MM, et al. | Nat Rev Immunol. 2011

Simultaneous detection of many T-cell specificities using combinatorial tetramer staining.

The direct detection of antigen-specific T cells using tetramers of soluble peptide-major histocompatibilty complex (pMHC) molecules is widely used in both basic and clinical immunology. However, the number of specificities that can be assessed simultaneously has been a major limitation. Here we describe and validate a method using combinations of fluorescent pMHC tetramers to simultaneously detect large numbers (≥ 15) of T cell specificities in a single human blood sample.

Newell EW, et al. | Nat Methods 2009