T cells & herpes simplex
T cells (green) and herpesvirus-infected cells (red)
(from Akiko Iwasaki)

We know that lots of viruses, especially herpesviruses, block antigen presentation. The assumption has been that they are thereby preventing T cells from recognizing infected cells, though long-term readers of this blog1 will know that I’ve been puzzled about the details of this for quite a while.

A recent paper2 raises yet another complication for this pathway: In humans3 there are T cells that specifically recognize cells in which antigen presentation is blocked:

Our data indicate that the human CD8+ T cell pool comprises a diverse reactivity to target cells with impairments in the intracellular processing pathway2

If so, you might wonder why the viruses would bother blocking antigen presentation. They might avoid recognition by T cells specific for the viral proteins, but at the cost of being recognized and eliminated by the T cells that recognize antigen-presentation-defective cells.

As always, I don’t have an answer. I do have the unhelpful observation that viruses are incredibly subtle and efficient, and given that herpesviruses have apparently maintained the ability to block antigen presentation for some 400 million years it’s presumably useful to them. I’ll also add the even more unhelpful observation that immune systems are also incredibly subtle and efficient and have also persisted for 450 million years.

How Not to be Seen

However, there may be a clue in the techniques that Lampen et al used to turn up this subset of T cells: They used multiple rounds of stimulation, which is going to expand these cells massively. We don’t know how abundant they are inside a normal human – perhaps they are so rare that they don’t have a chance to impinge on herpesvirus infection early enough.

The catch with that, though, is that tumors also frequently get rid of antigen presentation via mutation; in fact, eliminating antigen presentation seems to be one of the most common forms of mutations in cancers, suggesting that it’s an important part of their ability to survive and expand in the face of immune attack. Tumors are immunologically present much longer than viruses ((Although herpesviruses set up a lifelong infection, most of that is generally in a non-immunogenic, latent form). So why doesn’t this long-term tumor presence lead to amplification of these antigen-presentation-deficient-specific T cells that would eliminate the tumor?

My guess here is that this is where TRegs come in. As I said in a recent post, TRegs are very commonly, if not universally, associated with tumors, and prevent immune attack on the tumor. I wonder if the tumors mutate to avoid T cell recognition early in their development, before they are able to trigger the TReg response; that allows them to grow large enough and long enough that by the time the presentation-defect-destroyers kick in, the tumors have their TReg defenders set up.  (I admit that this doesn’t account for the correlation between a tumor’s loss of antigen presentation, and poor prognosis, but I leave this as an exercise for the reader.)

And, of course, where either of these defense systems for the proto-tumor fails, we normally would simply not see any tumor at all. Perhaps this is happening all the time inside us — proto-tumors are being eliminated by T cells, some are mutating their antigen presentation pathway and lasting a little longer and are then eliminated by a different subset of T cells, and we never know it.


  1. If any[]
  2. Lampen, M., Verweij, M., Querido, B., van der Burg, S., Wiertz, E., & van Hall, T. (2010). CD8+ T Cell Responses against TAP-Inhibited Cells Are Readily Detected in the Human Population The Journal of Immunology DOI: 10.4049/jimmunol.1001774[][]
  3. As has been previously shown in mice[]