Endocytosed protein antigens are believed to be fragmented in what appears to be a balance between proteolysis and MHC-mediated epitope protection, and the resulting peptide-MHC complexes are transported to the surface of the antigen-presenting cells (APC) and presented to T cells. The events that lead to antigenic peptide generation and the compartments where antigen processing takes place remains somewhat enigmatic. The importance of intracellular antigen processing has been well established; however, it is unclear whether additional processing occurs at the APC surface. To follow antigen processing, we have identified a pair of T cell hybridomas that recognize a long vs. a short version of the same epitope. We have used prefixed APC and various protease inhibitors to demonstrate that the APC surface has a considerable potential for antigen processing. Specific antibodies further identified the exopeptidase Aminopeptidase N (APN, CD13) as one of the enzymes involved in the observed cell-surface antigen processing. The NH2-terminal end of the longer peptide could, even while bound to major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules, be digested by APN with dramatic consequences for T cell antigen recognition. This could be demonstrated both in cell-free systems using purified reagents and in cellular systems. Thus, MHC class II and APN may act in concert to generate the final T cell epitopes.

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