Background: Major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-peptide tetrameric complexes (tetramers) are valuable tools for detecting and characterizing peptide-specific T cells. Because the frequency of these cells is generally very low, it may be difficult to discriminate between nonspecific and specific tetramer binding.
Methods: A four-color flow cytometric assay that simultaneously measures tetramer, CD3, CD8, and CD14 was used to investigate the sensitivity and specificity of MHC class I tetramer staining. This was accomplished by using the influenza virus matrix protein peptide, GILGFVFTL (FLU), as a model recall antigen and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) reverse transcriptase peptide, ILKEPVHGV (HIV), as a model novel antigen. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from 31 HLA-A2.1(+) and 10 HLA-A2.1(-) healthy individuals were stained with the tetramers.
Results: The lower limit of detection was established at approximately 1/8,000. In HLA-A2(+) PMBC, frequencies of tetramer-positive CD8(+) T cells were log normally distributed and were high for FLU (1/910) but low for HIV (1/6,067). A novel competition assay, in which tetramer binding was shown to diminish subsequent staining with anti-CD3 antibody, was used to confirm the specificity of tetramer binding to the T-cell receptor (TCR) complex. The competition assay was validated by evaluating several anti-CD3 antibodies and showing that in PBMC from HLA-A2(-) subjects, spurious tetramer-positive events (1/20,000) failed to compete with CD3 binding. For the "recall" FLU tetramer, the degree of competition was proportional to the frequency, suggesting a selection of high avidity cells. Although CD3 competition was also highly correlated with the intensity of tetramer staining, competition allowed the identification of false positive cases with relatively high tetramer staining intensity.
Conclusion: The data indicate that competition of CD3 binding allows confirmation of the specificity of tetramer binding to the TCR, extending the usefulness of tetramers in the frequency analysis of peptide-specific T lymphocytes.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.