It has long been thought that clonal deletion efficiently removes almost all self-specific T cells from the peripheral repertoire. We found that self-peptide MHC-specific CD8(+) T cells in the blood of healthy humans were present in frequencies similar to those specific for non-self antigens. For the Y chromosome-encoded SMCY antigen, self-specific T cells exhibited only a 3-fold lower average frequency in males versus females and were anergic with respect to peptide activation, although this inhibition could be overcome by a stronger stimulus. We conclude that clonal deletion prunes but does not eliminate self-specific T cells and suggest that to do so would create holes in the repertoire that pathogens could readily exploit. In support of this hypothesis, we detected T cells specific for all 20 amino acid variants at the p5 position of a hepatitis C virus epitope in a random group of blood donors.
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