Virus-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) contribute to the control of virus infections including those caused by influenza viruses. Especially under circumstances when antibodies induced by previous infection or vaccination fail to recognize and neutralize the virus adequately, CTL are important and contribute to protective immunity. During epidemic outbreaks caused by antigenic drift variants and during pandemic outbreaks of influenza, humoral immunity against influenza viruses is inadequate. Under these circumstances, pre-existing CTL directed to the relatively conserved internal proteins of the virus may provide cross-protective immunity. Indeed, most of the known human influenza virus CTL epitopes are conserved. However, during the evolution of influenza A/H3N2 viruses, the most important cause of seasonal influenza outbreaks, variation in CTL epitopes has been observed. The observed amino acid substitutions affected recognition by virus-specific CTL and the human virus-specific CTL response in vitro. Examples of variable epitopes and their HLA restrictions are: NP383-391/HLA-B*2705, NP380-388/HLA-B*0801, NP418-426/HLA-B*3501, NP251-259/HLA-B*4002, NP103-111/HLA-B*1503. In some cases amino acid substitutions occurred at anchor residues and in other cases at T cell receptor contact residues. It is of special interest that the R384G substitution in the NP383-391epitope was detrimental to virus fitness and was only tolerated in the presence of multiple functionally compensating co-mutations. In contrast, other epitopes, like the HLA-A*0201 restricted epitope from the matrix protein, M158-66, are highly conserved despite their immunodominant nature and the high prevalence of HLA-A*0201 in the population. A mutational analysis of this epitope indicated that it is under functional constraints. Also in influenza A viruses of other subtypes, including H5N1, the M158-66is highly conserved.

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Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Rimmelzwaan, G.F, Kreijtz, J.H.C.M, Bodewes, R, Fouchier, R.A.M, & Osterhaus, A.D.M.E. (2009). Influenza virus CTL epitopes, remarkably conserved and remarkably variable. Vaccine, 27(45), 6363–6365. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2009.01.016