Peptide-MHC (pMHC) multimers, usually used as streptavidin-based tetramers, have transformed the study of Ag-specific T cells by allowing direct detection, phenotyping, and enumeration within polyclonal T cell populations. These reagents are now a standard part of the immunology toolkit and have been used in many thousands of published studies. Unfortunately, the TCR-affinity threshold required for staining with standard pMHC multimer protocols is higher than that required for efficient T cell activation. This discrepancy makes it possible for pMHC multimer staining to miss fully functional T cells, especially where low-affinity TCRs predominate, such as in MHC class II-restricted responses or those directed against self-antigens. Several recent, somewhat alarming, reports indicate that pMHC staining might fail to detect the majority of functional T cells and have prompted suggestions that T cell immunology has become biased toward the type of cells amenable to detection with multimeric pMHC. We use several viral- and tumor-specific pMHC reagents to compare populations of human T cells stained by standard pMHC protocols and optimized protocols that we have developed. Our results confirm that optimized protocols recover greater populations of T cells that include fully functional T cell clonotypes that cannot be stained by regular pMHC-staining protocols. These results highlight the importance of using optimized procedures that include the use of protein kinase inhibitor and Ab cross-linking during staining to maximize the recovery of Ag-specific T cells and serve to further highlight that many previous quantifications of T cell responses with pMHC reagents are likely to have considerably underestimated the size of the relevant populations.
Copyright © 2018 The Authors.