Research ResourcesHEPATITIS

Multifactorial heterogeneity of virus-specific T cells and association with the progression of human chronic hepatitis B infection

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Science Immunology  08 Feb 2019:
Vol. 4, Issue 32, eaau6905
DOI: 10.1126/sciimmunol.aau6905

Mapping the T cell response to hepatitis B

Unlike evaluating antibody responses to infections, studying T cell responses has always been more complicated. A significant hurdle here continues to be the development of reagents to identify and characterize pathogen-specific T cells. Here, Cheng et al. have generated a comprehensive panel of peptide class I major histocompatibility complex tetramers to study CD8+ T cells that recognize hepatitis B virus (HBV). Using HBV-specific tetramers in conjunction with mass cytometry, they have documented functional states of HBV-specific CD8+ T cells in individuals with chronic HBV infection. The tetramer panels generated here to study HBV-specific T cells should be of broad utility to the HBV research community.


Associations between chronic antigen stimulation, T cell dysfunction, and the expression of various inhibitory receptors are well characterized in several mouse and human systems. During chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection (CHB), T cell responses are blunted with low frequencies of virus-specific T cells observed, making these parameters difficult to study. Here, using mass cytometry and a highly multiplexed combinatorial peptide–major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) tetramer strategy that allows for the detection of rare antigen-specific T cells, we simultaneously probed 484 unique HLA-A*1101–restricted epitopes spanning the entire HBV genome on T cells from patients at various stages of CHB. Numerous HBV-specific T cell populations were detected, validated, and profiled. T cells specific for two epitopes (HBVpol387 and HBVcore169) displayed differing and complex heterogeneities that were associated with the disease progression, and the expression of inhibitory receptors on these cells was not linearly related with their extent of T cell dysfunction. For HBVcore169-specific CD8+ T cells, we found cellular markers associated with long-term memory, polyfunctionality, and the presence of several previously unidentified public TCR clones that correlated with viral control. Using high-dimensional trajectory analysis of these cellular phenotypes, a pseudo-time metric was constructed that fit with the status of viral infection in corresponding patients. This was validated in a longitudinal cohort of patients undergoing antiviral therapy. Our study uncovers complex relationships of inhibitory receptors between the profiles of antigen-specific T cells and the status of CHB with implications for new strategies of therapeutic intervention.

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