Immuno-oncology approaches that utilize T cell receptors (TCRs) are becoming highly attractive because of their potential to target virtually all cellular proteins, including cancer-specific epitopes, via the recognition of peptide-human leukocyte antigen (pHLA) complexes presented at the cell surface. However, because natural TCRs generally recognize cancer-derived pHLAs with very weak affinities, efforts have been made to enhance their binding strength, in some cases by several million-fold. In this study, we investigated the mechanisms underpinning human TCR affinity enhancement by comparing the crystal structures of engineered enhanced affinity TCRs with those of their wild-type progenitors. Additionally, we performed molecular dynamics simulations to better understand the energetic mechanisms driving the affinity enhancements. These data demonstrate that supra-physiological binding affinities can be achieved without altering native TCR-pHLA binding modes via relatively subtle modifications to the interface contacts, often driven through the addition of buried hydrophobic residues. Individual energetic components of the TCR-pHLA interaction governing affinity enhancements were distinct and highly variable for each TCR, often resulting from additive, or knock-on, effects beyond the mutated residues. This comprehensive analysis of affinity-enhanced TCRs has important implications for the future rational design of engineered TCRs as efficacious and safe drugs for cancer treatment.
Keywords: MD; T cell receptor; T cells; TCR; X-ray crystallography; cancer immunotherapy; molecular dynamics; pHLA; peptide-human leukocyte antigen; simulations.
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