For the induction or boosting of antigen-specific CD8+ T cell responses, long synthetic peptides have been used in vaccination studies. Superior in vivo CD8+ T cell responses have been reported following vaccination with long peptides compared with minimal peptides, which was attributed to selective uptake and cross-presentation by professional antigen-presenting cells. Furthermore, to generate antigen-specific T cell lines for adoptive immunotherapy or to measure antigen-specific T cell responses, protein-spanning pools of overlapping long synthetic peptides can be used to simultaneously activate CD8+ and CD4+ T cells in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) ex vivo. Although exogenous antigen is predominantly presented in MHC class II, it has been suggested that cross-presentation of long peptides in MHC class I can occur. However, the mechanism of cross-presentation of exogenous long peptides in MHC class I is not clear. Various models for cross-presentation have been described following uptake of soluble antigen in endosomes, among which

  1. antigen transport over the endosomal membrane followed by the classical proteasome- and TAP-dependent route, and

  2. entrance of MHC class I in the recycling endocytic MHC class II pathway where peptidase-trimmed exogenous antigens can exchange with peptides in the MHC class I molecules, resulting in TAP- and proteasome-independent cross-presentation.

To improve the design of peptides for the in vivo or ex vivo activation of CD8+ T cells we investigated the mechanism and efficiency of cross-presentation of long peptides. We observed that antigen-presenting cells in peripheral blood, in particular monocytes, loaded with 15-mer peptides, 31-mer peptides or full length protein containing the NLV epitope were able to very efficiently induce IFNg production by cytomegalovirus (CMV) pp65 NLV-specific T cells. Specific T cells were most efficiently activated by N-terminally extended variants of the minimal epitope, while the use of C-terminally extended variants resulted in a 10-fold reduction of activation efficiency. Purification of these antigens by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) followed by mass spectrometry demonstrated that activation was not caused by contamination with the minimal epitope sequence. Also CD8+ T cells specific for other CMV and minor histocompatibility antigen (mHag) epitopes were activated by monocytes loaded with 15-mer or 20-mer peptides. Again N-terminally extended variants of minimal epitopes very efficiently induced activation, while the use of C-terminally variants or full length protein resulted in highly variable efficiency of activation, ranging from 10-fold reduction to complete absence of activation. Interestingly, TAP-deficient T2 cells loaded with CMV pp65 NLV antigens also efficiently activated NLV-specific T cells, indicating that the route of presentation was TAP-independent. Addition of lactacystin during loading of monocytes with CMV pp65 NLV 15-mer did not affect activation of specific T cells, suggesting that cross-presentation was proteasome-independent. Addition of primaquine reduced activation of specific T cells by the NLV 15-mer peptide, but not by the minimal NLV 9-mer peptide, suggesting that cross-presentation was dependent on endosomal recycling. To compare cross-presentation with presentation of endogenously synthesized antigen, TAP-competent T1 and TAP-deficient T2 cells were retrovirally transduced with the CMV pp65 gene. CMV pp65-specific T cells were activated by CMV pp65 transduced T1 but not T2 cells, indicating that endogenously synthesized CMV pp65 required processing and presentation by the classical proteasome- and TAP-dependent route. These data suggest that long synthetic peptides can be processed by peptidases in endocytic compartments and presented by recycling MHC class I molecules. Not all immunogenic epitopes that have been selected in vivo for efficient processing and presentation by the classical pathway may be presented efficiently by cross-presentation. As the efficiency of cross-presentation of long synthetic peptides may depend on the sequence of the C-terminal extension, a rational design of peptides is crucial for efficient activation of CD8+ T cells in approaches of vaccination, adoptive transfer and immune monitoring.

Disclosures: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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