CD8 T-cell responses to liver-expressed antigens range from deletional tolerance to full effector differentiation resulting in overt hepatotoxicity. The reasons for these heterogeneous outcomes are not well understood. To identify factors that govern the fate of CD8 T cells activated by hepatocyte-expressed antigen, we exploited recombinant adenoassociated viral vectors that enabled us to vary potential parameters determining these outcomes in vivo. Our findings reveal a threshold of antigen expression within the liver as the dominant factor determining T-cell fate, irrespective of T-cell receptor affinity or antigen cross-presentation. Thus, when a low percentage of hepatocytes expressed cognate antigen, high-affinity T cellsdeveloped and maintained effector function, whereas, at a high percentage, they became functionally exhausted and silenced. Exhaustion was not irreversibly determined by initial activation, but was maintained by high intrahepatic antigen load during the early phase of the response; cytolytic function was restored when T cells primed under high antigen load conditions were transferred into an environment of low-level antigen expression. Our study reveals a hierarchy of factors dictating the fate of CD8 T cells during hepatic immune responses, and provides an explanation for the different immune outcomes observed in a variety of immune-mediated liver pathologic conditions.
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 111, E2540-2549 (IF: 9.8). (2014)