Benzofuran sulfonates and small self-lipid antigens activate type II NKT cells via CD1d

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Aug 24;118(34):e2104420118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2104420118.


Natural killer T (NKT) cells detect lipids presented by CD1d. Most studies focus on type I NKT cells that express semi-invariant αβ T cell receptors (TCR) and recognize α-galactosylceramides. However, CD1d also presents structurally distinct lipids to NKT cells expressing diverse TCRs (type II NKT cells), but our knowledge of the antigens for type II NKT cells is limited. An early study identified a nonlipidic NKT cell agonist, phenyl pentamethyldihydrobenzofuransulfonate (PPBF), which is notable for its similarity to common sulfa drugs, but its mechanism of NKT cell activation remained unknown. Here, we demonstrate that a range of pentamethylbenzofuransulfonates (PBFs), including PPBF, activate polyclonal type II NKT cells from human donors. Whereas these sulfa drug-like molecules might have acted pharmacologically on cells, here we demonstrate direct contact between TCRs and PBF-treated CD1d complexes. Further, PBF-treated CD1d tetramers identified type II NKT cell populations expressing αβTCRs and γδTCRs, including those with variable and joining region gene usage (TRAV12-1-TRAJ6) that was conserved across donors. By trapping a CD1d-type II NKT TCR complex for direct mass-spectrometric analysis, we detected molecules that allow the binding of CD1d to TCRs, finding that both selected PBF family members and short-chain sphingomyelin lipids are present in these complexes. Furthermore, the combination of PPBF and short-chain sphingomyelin enhances CD1d tetramer staining of PPBF-reactive T cell lines over either molecule alone. This study demonstrates that nonlipidic small molecules, which resemble sulfa drugs implicated in systemic hypersensitivity and drug allergy reactions, are targeted by a polyclonal population of type II NKT cells in a CD1d-restricted manner.

Keywords: CD1d; PPBF; TCR; antigen; type II NKT.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antigen Presentation / immunology
  • Antigens, CD1d / immunology
  • Antigens, CD1d / metabolism*
  • Arylsulfonates / immunology*
  • Autoantigens / immunology
  • Autoantigens / metabolism*
  • Benzofurans / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Lipids / immunology*
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology*
  • Natural Killer T-Cells / immunology*
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / metabolism*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology


  • Antigens, CD1d
  • Arylsulfonates
  • Autoantigens
  • Benzofurans
  • CD1D protein, human
  • Lipids
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell
  • phenyl 2,2,4,6,7-pentamethyldihydrobenzofuran-5-sulfonate