Content Reviewers:Rishi Desai, MD, MPH
The immune response is highly specific for each invader, and that’s because the cells of the adaptive immune response have receptors that can differentiate friendly bacteria from potentially deadly pathogens from their unique parts - called antigens.
The key cells of the adaptive immune response are the lymphocytes - the B and T cells.
There are two types of T cells which are identified based on molecules they express on their surface.
Helper T cells express CD4 on their surface, and their main function is to support other immune cells.
Cytotoxic T cells express CD8 on their surface, and their main function is to kill infected or cancerous cells.
Activation of both helper and cytotoxic T cells requires two signals.
The first signal occurs when a T cell receptor binds to an antigen.
Now, a T cell receptor can only recognize antigens that are peptides, rather than carbohydrates or lipids.
And the T cell receptor also needs to have a peptide presented on a major histocompatibility complex, also known as MHC.
MHC molecules act like serving platters present the antigen to T cells.
There are two types of MHC molecules that work with the two types of T cells.
The antigen presented on the MHC molecule must be the right size and shape to bind strongly to the T cell receptor which is part of the CD3 complex.
The CD3 complex has 7 peptide chains, one alpha, one beta, one gamma, one delta, two epsilon, and two zeta chains.
The antigen binding site of the T cell receptor is composed of the alpha chain and the beta chain, each of which have two domains - a variable domain and a constant domain.
The variable regions of the alpha and beta chains of the CD3 complex of the T cell receptor bind the antigen, and the remainder of the CD3 complex binds to the MHC molecule.
The constant domain has a short transmembrane segment and a short cytoplasmic segment.
The transmembrane segment contains cysteine residues which allow two adjacent chains to form a disulfide bond, connecting the chains to one another.
And the variable domain of the alpha and beta chain come together to form a single antigen binding site. This is different from the B cell receptor which has two antigen binding sites.
Also, unlike the B cell receptor, the T cell receptor is surface bound and cannot be secreted.
Now, in addition to the T cell receptor, CD4 binds to the MHC class II molecule and CD8 binds to the MHC class I molecule - and that helps securing the interaction between the T cell receptor and the MHC molecule.
Second, the cytoplasmic portion of the alpha and beta chains of the T cell receptor are rather short.
As a result, the signal that the T cell receptor has successfully bound an antigen, gets sent down other portions of the CD3 complex as well as the CD4 or CD8 molecules.
The second signal required for T cell activation is called co-stimulation.
And it’s when a ligand that’s on the surface of a T cell called CD28, binds to a ligand called B7 on the antigen presenting cell.