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Open Access Commentary

New approaches to eliciting protective immunity through T cell repertoire manipulation: the concept of thymic vaccination

Masha Fridkis-Hareli12 and Ellis L Reinherz12*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory of Immunobiology, Department of Medical Oncology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, USA

2 Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, 77 Avenue Louis Pasteur, Boston, MA 02115, USA

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Medical Immunology 2004, 3:2  doi:10.1186/1476-9433-3-2

Published: 8 December 2004

Abstract

Conventional vaccines afford protection against infectious diseases by expanding existing pathogen-specific peripheral lymphocytes, both CD8 cytotoxic effector (CTL) and CD4 helper T cells. The latter induce B cell maturation and antibody production. As a consequence, lymphocytes within the memory pool are poised to rapidly proliferate at the time of a subsequent infection. The "thymic vaccination" concept offers a novel way to alter the primary T cell repertoire through exposure of thymocytes to altered peptide ligands (APL) with reduced T cell receptor (TCR) affinity relative to cognate antigens recognized by those same TCRs. Thymocyte maturation (i.e. positive selection) is enhanced by low affinity interaction between a TCR and an MHC-bound peptide in the thymus and subsequent emigration of mature cells into the peripheral T lymphocyte pool follows. In principal, such variants of antigens derived from infectious agents could be utilized for peptide-driven maturation of thymocytes bearing pathogen-specific TCRs. To test this idea, APLs of gp33–41, a Db-restricted peptide derived from the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) glycoprotein, and of VSV8, a Kb-restricted peptide from the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) nucleoprotein, have been designed and their influence on thymic maturation of specific TCR-bearing transgenic thymocytes examined in vivo using irradiation chimeras. Injection of APL resulted in positive selection of CD8 T cells expressing the relevant viral specificity and in the export of those virus-specific CTL to lymph nodes without inducing T cell proliferation. Thus, exogenous APL administration offers the potential of expanding repertoires in vivo in a manner useful to the organism. To efficiently peripheralize antigen-specific T cells, concomitant enhancement of mechanisms promoting thymocyte migration appears to be required. This commentary describes the rationale for thymic vaccination and addresses the potential prophylactic and therapeutic applications of this approach for treatment of infectious diseases and cancer. Thymic vaccination-induced peptide-specific T cells might generate effective immune protection against disease-causing agents, including those for which no effective natural protection exists.