Fluorochrome-conjugated peptide-major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) multimers are widely used for flow cytometric visualization of antigen-specific T cells. The most common multimers, streptavidin-biotin-based 'tetramers', can be manufactured readily in the laboratory. Unfortunately, there are large differences between the threshold of T cell receptor (TCR) affinity required to capture pMHC tetramers from solution and that which is required for T cell activation. This disparity means that tetramers sometimes fail to stain antigen-specific T cells within a sample, an issue that is particularly problematic when staining tumour-specific, autoimmune or MHC class II-restricted T cells, which often display TCRs of low affinity for pMHC. Here, we compared optimized staining with tetramers and dextramers (dextran-based multimers), with the latter carrying greater numbers of both pMHC and fluorochrome per molecule. Most notably, we find that: (i) dextramers stain more brightly than tetramers; (ii) dextramers outperform tetramers when TCR-pMHC affinity is low; (iii) dextramers outperform tetramers with pMHC class II reagents where there is an absence of co-receptor stabilization; and (iv) dextramer sensitivity is enhanced further by specific protein kinase inhibition. Dextramers are compatible with current state-of-the-art flow cytometry platforms and will probably find particular utility in the fields of autoimmunity and cancer immunology.
Keywords: T cell receptors; T cells; autoimmunity; diabetes; tumour immunology.
© 2014 The Authors. Clinical & Experimental Immunology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Society for Immunology.