Dendritic cells are potent antigen-presenting cells for several primary immune responses and therefore provide an opportunity for evaluating the amounts of cell-associated antigens that are required for inducing T cell-mediated immunity. Because dendritic cells express very high levels of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II products, it has been assumed that high levels of ligands bound to MHC products ("signal one") are needed to stimulate quiescent T cells. Here we describe quantitative aspects underlying the stimulation of human blood T cells by a bacterial superantigen, staphylococcal enterotoxin A (SEA). The advantages of superantigens for quantitative studies of signal one are that these ligands: (a) engage MHC class II and the T cell receptor but do not require processing; (b) are efficiently presented to large numbers of quiescent T cells; and (c) can be pulsed onto dendritic cells before their application to T cells. Thus one can relate amounts of dendritic cell-associated SEA to subsequent lymphocyte stimulation. Using radioiodinated SEA, we noted that dendritic cells can bind 30-200 times more superantigen than B cells and monocytes. Nevertheless, this high SEA binding does not underlie the strong potency of dendritic cells to present antigen to T cells. Dendritic cells can sensitize quiescent T cells, isolated using monoclonals to appropriate CD45R epitopes, after a pulse of SEA that occupies a maximum of 0.1% of surface MHC class II molecules. This corresponds to an average of 2,000 molecules per dendritic cell. At these low doses of bound SEA, monoclonal antibodies to CD3, CD4, and CD28 almost completely block T cell proliferation. In addition to suggesting new roles for MHC class II on dendritic cells, especially the capture and retention of ligands at low external concentrations, the data reveal that primary T cells can generate a response to exceptionally low levels of signal one as long as these are delivered on dendritic cells.

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