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PLoS Pathog ; 17(9): e1009842, 2021 09.
Article in English | MEDLINE | ID: covidwho-1416911


The aim of this study was to define the breadth and specificity of dominant SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell epitopes using a comprehensive set of 135 overlapping 15-mer peptides covering the SARS-CoV-2 envelope (E), membrane (M) and nucleoprotein (N) in a cohort of 34 individuals with acute (n = 10) and resolved (n = 24) COVID-19. Following short-term virus-specific in vitro cultivation, the single peptide-specific CD4+ T cell response of each patient was screened using enzyme linked immuno spot assay (ELISpot) and confirmed by single-peptide intracellular cytokine staining (ICS) for interferon-γ (IFN-γ) production. 97% (n = 33) of patients elicited one or more N, M or E-specific CD4+ T cell responses and each patient targeted on average 21.7 (range 0-79) peptide specificities. Overall, we identified 10 N, M or E-specific peptides that showed a response frequency of more than 36% and five of them showed high binding affinity to multiple HLA class II binders in subsequent in vitro HLA binding assays. Three peptides elicited CD4+ T cell responses in more than 55% of all patients, namely Mem_P30 (aa146-160), Mem_P36 (aa176-190), both located within the M protein, and Ncl_P18 (aa86-100) located within the N protein. These peptides were further defined in terms of length and HLA restriction. Based on this epitope and restriction data we developed a novel DRB*11 tetramer (Mem_aa145-164) and examined the ex vivo phenotype of SARS-CoV-2-specific CD4+ T cells in one patient. This detailed characterization of single T cell peptide responses demonstrates that SARS-CoV-2 infection universally primes a broad T cell response directed against multiple specificities located within the N, M and E structural protein.

CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes/immunology , COVID-19/immunology , SARS-CoV-2/immunology , Acute Disease , Adult , Aged , Cohort Studies , Coronavirus Envelope Proteins/immunology , Coronavirus Nucleocapsid Proteins/immunology , Enzyme-Linked Immunospot Assay , Epitopes, T-Lymphocyte/immunology , Female , Humans , Male , Middle Aged , Phosphoproteins/immunology , Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus/immunology , Survivors , T-Cell Antigen Receptor Specificity , Viral Matrix Proteins/immunology