It is increasingly recognized that cells within an antigen-specific CD8 T-cell population may be diverse in recognition efficiency for target, which may significantly affect the overall efficacy of the response in clinical settings such as viral infections and cancer. CD8 T cells with seemingly identical antigen specificity, particularly those elicited by cancer vaccines, may be heterogeneous for sensitivity and recognition efficiency for the cognate peptide and functional state in vivo. Analysis of individual T-cell clones derived from an antigen-specific T-cell population would provide an accurate assessment of the overall response; however, this is time- and labor-intensive, preventing rapid and routine assessment of patient samples from clinical trials. By stimulating antigen-specific T cells that otherwise appear homogeneous on tetramer staining with graded amounts of cognate peptides, the authors show that individual cells downmodulate surface T-cell receptors (TCR) and thus lose tetramer reactivity with variable dynamics within the T-cell population. The dynamics of TCR downregulation represent an accurate assessment of an individual cell's antigen sensitivity, recognition efficiency, and relative functional state within an antigen-specific population and have direct correlation to killing capacity by chromium release as well as degranulation by CD107 mobilization. Furthermore, despite correlation of average T-cell function by all three techniques, TCR downregulation uncovered heterogeneity in T-cell responses after vaccination among patient samples directly ex vivo. When examined using this novel technique, antigen-specific T cells elicited by vaccination with heteroclitic peptides exhibited significantly different recognition efficiencies for the heteroclitic versus native peptides, translating into differences in functional responses. With advancing cancer vaccine trials, the capacity to detect and functionally characterize antigen-specific T-cell responses in detail is critical. Techniques, as presented here, that rapidly assess the overall antigen sensitivity, recognition efficiency, and functional status of patients' T-cell responses will guide future vaccine trials and immunotherapies.
From the *Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Stanford University, Stanford, California; †Department of Statistics, Stanford University, Stanford, California; and ‡Department of Medical Oncology, USC Norris Cancer Center, Los Angeles, California.
Supported by a grant from the NIH (R01 CA 090809) and the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation (Scholar Award) to P.P.L. H.E.K. is supported by the Baxter Foundation and HHMI.
Received for publication February 2, 2005; accepted March 7, 2005.
Reprints: Peter P. Lee, MD, Department of Medicine, Stanford University, CCSR room 1155, 269 Campus Drive, Stanford, CA 94305 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).