Epitopes in the Glycosylphosphatidylinositol Attachment Signal Peptide of Trypanosoma cruzi Mucin Proteins Generate Robust But Delayed and Nonprotective CD8+ T Cell Responses

Infection with the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi elicits substantial CD8+ T cell responses that disproportionately target epitopes encoded in the large trans-sialidase (TS) gene family. Within the C57BL/6 infection model, a significant proportion (30-40%) of the T. cruzi-specific CD8+ T cell response targets two immunodominant TS epitopes, TSKb18 and TSKb20. However, both TS-specific CD8+ T cell responses are dispensable for immune control, and TS-based vaccines have no demonstrable impact on parasite persistence, a determinant of disease. Besides TS, the specificity and protective capacity of CD8+ T cells that mediate immune control of T. cruzi infection are unknown. With the goal of identifying alternative CD8+ T cell targets, we designed and screened a representative set of genome-wide, in silico-predicted epitopes. Our screen identified a previously uncharacterized, to our knowledge, T cell epitope MUCKb25, found within mucin family proteins, the third most expanded large gene family in T. cruzi. The MUCKb25-specific response was characterized by delayed kinetics, relative to TS-specific responses, and extensive cross-reactivity with a large number of endogenous epitope variants. Similar to TS-specific responses, the MUCKb25 response was dispensable for control of the infection, and vaccination to generate MUCK-specific CD8+ T cells failed to confer protection. The lack of protection by MUCK vaccination was partly attributed to the fact that MUCKb25-specific T cells exhibit limited recognition of T. cruzi-infected host cells. Overall, these results indicate that the CD8+ T cell compartment in many T. cruzi-infected mice is occupied by cells with minimal apparent effector potential.

Molly E Bunkofske, Natasha Perumal, Brooke White, Eva-Maria Strauch, Rick Tarleton. J Immunol. 2023 Jan 4;ji2200723. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.2200723.