Utrecht Center for Quantitative Immunology
Identification of T cell epitopes
A human cell that is infected with virus will present protein fragments of this
virus on HLA class I molecules expressed on the cell surface. Similarly, a
cell taking up viral particles or proteins from the extra-cellular environment
will present fragments of those on HLA class II molecules. Cytotoxic T cells
(CD8+ T cells) will recognize the presented fragments on HLA class I
molecules and kill the infected cells. T helper cells (CD4+ T cells)
become activated after recognizing peptide-HLA class II complex, and they
provide necessary environment for CD8+ T cells to perform their function.
In past years, many efforts have been put in determining which peptides
can be potential epitopes. For numerous peptide-MHC (pMHC) combinations the
binding affinity has been measured, and this data enabled the development
of highly accurate MHC binding predictors. Furthermore, the processing of
precursor proteins into MHC ligands by the proteasome, other proteases and the
TAP transporter has been studied extensively and data from these studies were
used to construct successful processing-predictors. Our group played a
central role in development of these in silico methods to predict what is being
presented on the cell surface. Thanks to this progress, for a pathogen such as
HIV-1 it is now possible to predict reliably which peptides will be presented on
a certain MHC molecule, and test subsequently if these predicted pMHCs are
Despite high accuracy predictions of which pMHCs are formed, what distinguishes
epitopes from non-epitopes is still an open question. Several factors have been
described that could explain why some pMHCs can induce T cell responses while
others can not. For example, the abundance of a pMHC plays a role in immune
targeting and the abundance can be affected by pMHC binding affinity and
stability together with the abundance of the precursor protein and the
efficiency of MHC ligand processing. However, the most important factor, we
believe, is the recognition by T cells. Even when a pMHC is optimally presented,
a T cell response will not occur if this pMHC complex is too similar to a self
pMHC. In addition, pMHC complexes can have certain intrinsic properties
that make it unlikely to be recognized by T cells. Currently, we are working on models
that can predict the immunogenecity of the pMHCs using data driven approaches.
Our models for predicting different steps of the pathways involved in T cell
epitope generation are made available as web servers.
NetChop : A
web server to predict cellular proteolysis (Immuno- and constitutive proteasome, TAP).
Web servers to predict peptide binding to MHC molecules (several alleles and supertypes are available).
CD8 T cell immunogenicity: This tool uses amino acid properties as well as their position within the
peptide to predict the immunogenicity of a class I peptide MHC (pMHC) complex.
Hepatitis C virus epitope browser : This interactive browser can be used to visualize the distribution of both experimentally verified and predicted epitopes across conserved and unconserved regions in the Hepatitis C proteome.
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