Chronic viral infections lead to CD8(+) T-cell exhaustion, characterized by impaired cytokine secretion and loss of proliferative capacity. While viral load and T-cell dysfunction correlate, it is currently unclear whether the quality of a cell type presenting antigen determines the degree of T-cell exhaustion or if the overall amount of antigen recognized by T cells promotes exhaustion. We found that chronic lymphocytic chorio-meningitis virus infection led to decreased CD8(+) T-cell exhaustion in DC-MHC class I (MHCI) mice, in which CD8(+) T cells can only recognize antigen on DCs. However, this increase in CD8(+) T-cell function came at the expense of fatal immunopathology. Additional antigen recognition on nonhematopoietic cells in DC-MHCI mice promoted T-cell exhaustion and avoidance of immunopathology. Likewise, increased numbers of antigen-expressing hematopoietic cells, as well as a selective elevation of the number of DCs as the only cell type presenting antigen in DC-MHCI mice, resulted in compromised T-cell function. These results favor a scenario in which the overall amount of antigen exposure, rather than the type of cell engaging with virus-specific CD8(+) T cells, is responsible for their functional exhaustion. Furthermore, exhaustion of virus-specific CD8(+) T cells leads to avoidance of life-threatening immunopathology.
© 2012 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim.