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Peptides that bind poorly to MHC class I molecules often elicit low-functional avidity T cell responses. Peptide modification by altering the anchor residue facilitates increased binding affinity and may elicit T cells with increased functional avidity toward the native epitope ( heteroclitic ). This augmented MHC binding is likely to increase the half-life and surface density of the heteroclitic complex, but precisely how this enhanced T cell response occurs in vivo is not known. Furthermore, the ideal heteroclitic epitope will elicit T cell responses that completely cross-react with the native epitope, maximizing protection and minimizing undesirable off-target effects. Such epitopes have been difficult to identify. In this study, using mice infected with a murine coronavirus that encodes epitopes that elicit high (S510, CSLWNGPHL)- and low (S598, RCQIFANI)-functional avidity responses, we show that increased expression of peptide S598 but not S510 generated T cells with enhanced functional avidity. Thus, immune responses can be augmented toward T cell epitopes with low functional avidity by increasing Ag density. We also identified a heteroclitic epitope (RCVIFANI) that elicited a T cell response with nearly complete cross-reactivity with native epitope and demonstrated increased MHC/peptide abundance compared with native S598. Structural and thermal melt analyses indicated that the Q600V substitution enhanced stability of the peptide/MHC complex without greatly altering the antigenic surface, resulting in highly cross-reactive T cell responses. Our data highlight that increased peptide/MHC complex display contributes to heteroclitic epitope efficacy and describe parameters for maximizing immune responses that cross-react with the native epitope.
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