• Susanne ModrowEmail author
  • Dietrich Falke
  • Uwe Truyen
  • Hermann Schätzl
Reference work entry


The immune defence mechanisms by which an organism combats viral infections can be divided into two systems. On the one hand, there are the unspecific, non-adaptive immune reactions, which recognize and eliminate invading foreign pathogens. This so-called natural or innate immune system becomes primarily active after a virus has overcome the external physical protection barriers of the body (skin, mucous membranes). It consists of dendritic cells, granulocytes, monocytes, macrophages and natural killer cells (NK cells). They have proteins that serve as receptors, e.g. Toll-like receptors (TLRs) and complement receptors, for specific structures of pathogens and for the soluble products of the innate immune system (acute-phase proteins, factors of the complement system, cytokines, chemokines and interferons). The effects and functions of cytokines, chemokines and interferons will be discussed separately in Chap. 8. The specific, adaptive immune response is the second line of defence, and is developed only during or after the establishment of an infection. It includes antibody-producing B cells – the humoral immune system – as well as T-helper (TH) cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which collectively constitute the cellular defence system. The adaptive immune reactions can selectively recognize certain pathogen types or subtypes, and in the case of a reinfection, they are able to recognize the pathogens again and eliminate them. They are long-lasting and a subset of stimulated lymphocytes transform into memory cells during their development, which confers on the organism an efficient protective immunity against infections with the same pathogen. The systems of the specific and non-specific immune responses are in close contact with each other, particularly via cytokines, chemokines and interferons. An immune response is generally triggered by antigens. These may be the infectious pathogens, individual protein components or sugar structures. The immune system recognizes these as foreign, and thus can distinguish between endogenous and exogenous components. However, the antigens must be of a certain size to trigger different immune responses. Molecules with a molecular mass of less than 3–4 kDa are usually incapable of doing that.


Human Immunodeficiency Virus Specific Immune Response Human Leucocyte Antigen Constant Domain Major Basic Protein 
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The immune defence mechanisms by which an organism combats viral infections can be divided into two systems. On the one hand, there are the unspecific, non-adaptive immune reactions, which recognize and eliminate invading foreign pathogens. This so-called natural or innate immune system becomes primarily active after a virus has overcome the external physical protection barriers of the body (skin, mucous membranes). It consists of dendritic cells, granulocytes, monocytes, macrophages and natural killer cells (NK cells). They have proteins that serve as receptors, e.g. Toll-like receptors (TLRs) and complement receptors, for specific structures of pathogens and for the soluble products of the innate immune system (acute-phase proteins, factors of the complement system, cytokines, chemokines and interferons). The effects and functions of cytokines, chemokines and interferons will be discussed separately in  Chap. 8. The specific, adaptive immune response is the second line of defence, and is developed only during or after the establishment of an infection. It includes antibody-producing B cells – the humoral immune system – as well as T-helper (TH) cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which collectively constitute the cellular defence system. The adaptive immune reactions can selectively recognize certain pathogen types or subtypes, and in the case of a reinfection, they are able to recognize the pathogens again and eliminate them. They are long-lasting and a subset of stimulated lymphocytes transform into memory cells during their development, which confers on the organism an efficient protective immunity against infections with the same pathogen. The systems of the specific and non-specific immune responses are in close contact with each other, particularly via cytokines, chemokines and interferons. An immune response is generally triggered by antigens. These may be the infectious pathogens, individual protein components or sugar structures. The immune system recognizes these as foreign, and thus can distinguish between endogenous and exogenous components. However, the antigens must be of a certain size to trigger different immune responses. Molecules with a molecular mass of less than 3–4 kDa are usually incapable of doing that.

7.1 What Are the Cellular and Molecular Components of the Immune System that Constitute the “First Front” Against Invading Pathogens?

7.1.1 Dendritic Cells

Dendritic cells are white blood cells which are characterized by highly ramified outgrowths or projections of the cell membrane (Latin dendriticus meaning “ramified” or “branched”). Plasmacytoid (lymphoid) dendritic cells and myeloid dendritic cells originate from haematopoietic progenitor cells in the bone marrow; myeloid dendritic cells probably differentiate alternatively into macrophages direct from monocytes. As immature dendritic cells, they migrate from the blood into almost all tissues of the body, where they establish a dense network of sentinel cells, which ingest extracellular components by phagocytosis and endocytosis, similarly to neutrophils and macrophages. The Langerhans cells of the skin and mucous membranes, the Kupffer cells of the liver, the interdigitating cells of the spleen and lymph nodes, interstitial dendritic cells and the M cells of mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue are tissue dendritic cells. They constantly check their environment for invasion and the presence of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi), which they recognize by interacting with receptors of the pattern recognition receptor family. These include TLRs that recognize pathogen-specific structures and bind to them (Sect. 7.1.5). In dendritic cells these contacts induce the synthesis and secretion of large amounts of interferon-α (IFN-α) and interferon-β (INF-β) as well as proinflammatory cytokines; this gives rise to the activation of granulocytes and macrophages, which move to the infection site. In the course of this process, dendritic cells mature and phagocytose the pathogens. Like macrophages, they can present peptides which result from the degradation of pathogen proteins in complex with MHC class II proteins on their cell surface, thus inducing the defence responses of the specific immune system. Unlike macrophages, dendritic cells are able to leave the tissues to which they had migrated, and reach in activated form, via streaming lymph fluid, the spleen and lymph nodes, the local organizing centres of the immune defence. There, they interact as antigen-presenting cells with B and T lymphocytes, and thus are decisively involved in the induction of the specific immune response: they activate TH lymphocytes and macrophages, regulate the cytokine pattern of the emerging TH lymphocytes into interferon-γ (IFN-γ)-producing TH1 cells or IL-4 producing TH2 cells, initiate the formation of cytotoxic T lymphocytes and induce, using the assistance of T cells, the differentiation of plasma cells into antibody-producing B lymphocytes. Therefore, dendritic cells are highly specialized to stimulate specific immune responses and are an important link between the unspecific and the specific immune defence systems.

Although follicular dendritic cells morphologically resemble the plasmacytoid and myeloid dendritic cells, they have completely different functions. They are resident and non-motile cells in the germinal centres of lymph nodes and other secondary lymphoid organs (e.g. spleen, tonsils, Peyer patches). They probably do not originate from bone marrow precursor cells and cannot phagocytose and degrade pathogens or protein components of pathogens. By contrast, on their surface they have Fc immunoglobulin receptors and C3 complement receptors through which they bind to antigen–antibody complexes. They present these complexes to B lymphocytes and induce their proliferation and maturation. In the course of this, for instance, the immunoglobulin class switch occurs (Sect. 7.2.2).

7.1.2 Granulocytes

Approximately 60–70 % of all circulating white blood cells are granulocytes, which have a polymorphic nucleus divided into three to four segments and possess a large number of lysosomes in the cytoplasm. The latter are referred to as granules owing to their appearance in microscopic images. These cells are produced in the bone marrow, from which they migrate into the blood. They have a relatively short half-life of 2–3 days. Because of the different dyeability of their granules, which primarily contain proteases and other degrading enzymes, they can be divided into neutrophil, eosinophil and basophil subgroups.

In particular, neutrophils, which represent the largest subpopulation (about 90 %), are involved in the first defence mechanisms against viral infections; humans produce about 1011 neutrophils per day. During the first few hours after their formation they still do not have a segmented nucleus; thus they are called unsegmented. To reach the infected tissue, neutrophils leave the bloodstream and the vascular system in a multistage process that is mediated by adhesion molecules and chemokines (chemotactic, soluble, attracting proteins which are released by activated dendritic cells). They attach to endothelial cells by adhesion molecules on their cell surfaces, such as L-selectin, vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 and intercellular adhesion molecule 1, which in turn – also chemokine-mediated–produce the corresponding ligands (E-selectin and P selectin, integrins). This enables granulocytes to pass through the intercellular spaces of the endothelium which line the blood capillaries. In the course of this, they migrate to the inflammation or infection sites along a concentration gradient of chemokines, to which they bind by the corresponding chemokine receptors on their surface, and are the first immune cells to arrive there. Upon contact with the pathogens, neutrophils release the content of their granules into the surrounding region, or they phagocytose the pathogens. These are then surrounded by membrane vesicles, the phagosomes, which fuse with intracellular granules to form phagolysosomes. In this way, the agents are confronted with a plethora of degrading enzymes (including proteases, lysozymes, myeloperoxidases, hydrolases and muraminidases) and are killed. Granulocytes are stimulated by interaction with pathogens. As a result, granulocytes produce a variety of inflammatory factors such as IL-8, IL-1, IL-6 and TNF-α as well as leukotrienes and prostaglandins. In particular, IL-8 has a chemotactic effect and lures more granulocytes and T lymphocytes to the infection site. The substances released act not only in an immunoregulatory manner. Some of them, e.g. IL-1, are also involved in the development of fever and the increase of algesthesia. Phagocytosis is more effective when the surfaces of the pathogens are complexed with antibodies, which are generated at a later stage of infection. It is part of the antibody-dependent, cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC). If neutrophils are not activated during the first 6 h after their emergence, i.e. if they not were confronted with infectious and/or inflammatory reactions, apoptosis will naturally be induced in them; dead granulocytes are then degraded in the liver by the macrophages that reside in this organ.

Eosinophils and basophils represent only about 2–5 and 0.2 % of white blood cells, respectively. Mast cells are tissue cells of mucous membranes and connective tissues. Their function is very similar to that of basophils. The main function of eosinophils is defence against large extracellular parasites, which cannot be phagocytosed owing to their size, such as worms (helminths). Eosinophils are attracted by chemotactic substances, attach to the parasites and pour out the content of their granules to the surrounding region, i.e. enzymes, oxygen radicals and cytotoxic proteins such as major basic protein (MBP); MBP is a group of small, arginine-rich proteins that are toxic to helminths, but also to mammalian cells, especially the cells of the bronchial epithelium. Eosinophils are also capable of phagocytosing small pathogens or IgE-containing immune complexes. Basophils and mast cells are involved in the development of allergic immune reactions, as they have IgE receptors on their surface and release histamine, heparin, proteases and leukotrienes upon attachment of IgE-containing antigen–antibody complexes. Histamines are also released upon contact of mast cells with MBP of eosinophils, which respond in turn with the release of histaminase and arylsulphatase, thus counteracting the histamine release. Disturbances in these processes can lead to allergic reactions.

7.1.3 Monocytes and Macrophages

Monocytes and macrophages belong, along with granulocytes and dendritic cells, to the mononuclear phagocytes, which are the most important cells of the innate immune system. Approximately 2–8 % of blood cells are monocytes. They are large, contain many lysosomes in their cytoplasm and have a well-pronounced Golgi apparatus. Both MHC class I and MHC class II proteins are anchored in their cell membrane. Monocytes originate from myeloid stem cells in the bone marrow, which initially develop to monoblasts under the influence of growth factors such as granulocyte–macrophage colony-stimulating factor and monocyte colony-stimulating factor. Monoblasts further differentiate into monocytes, which leave the bone marrow and circulate for 20–30 h in the blood before they migrate as macrophages into different tissue and organ systems. Similar to neutrophils, macrophages also follow the paths that are mediated by adhesion molecules and chemokines, leave the bloodstream and arrive early at the infection site. They can ingest and digest foreign material by phagocytosis, i.e. pathogens or protein components derived from them. During this process, peptides are formed from digested proteins. These peptides interact with MHC class II proteins, and are finally presented on the cell surface of monocytes and macrophages. In this way, they become antigen-presenting cells that activate the specific immune system, namely the TH lymphocytes (Sect. 7.2.1). Furthermore, activated macrophages produce specific surface proteins such as CD14, CD16 and CD86 (CD stands for cluster of differentiation), and TLR2 and TLR4. Like TLR2 and TLR4, CD14 interacts with lipopolysaccharide (endotoxin)-negative bacteria. If these receptors come in contact with lipopolysaccharides, they stimulate macrophages to phagocytose foreign material and to release inflammatory mediators such as TNF-α, IL-1β and IL-6.

7.1.4 Natural Killer Cells

Natural killer cells (NK cells) originate from precursor cells in the bone marrow. Unlike T lymphocytes, NK cells remain in the peripheral lymphoid tissues, where they develop into large, granular lymphocytes, which possess characteristic surface markers. One of their principal functions is the clearance of virus-infected cells and tumour cells. NK cells induce apoptosis preferentially in cells that exhibit very low levels of MHC molecules on their surface. This mode of recognition and elimination of virus-infected and transformed cells is of crucial importance, as they often reduce the number of MHC proteins on their surfaces in order to escape the MHC-dependent specific immune responses. Fundamentally, NK cells are programmed to destroy all nucleated cells. However, MHC class I molecules on the cell surface inhibit this activity; hence, NK cells selectively induce apoptosis in those cells that do not exhibit MHC class I expression. Therefore, NK cells have killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) on their surface, which recognize and bind to MHC molecules. The KIR–MHC interaction leads to an inhibitory signal that suppresses the killer activity of NK cells. If this interaction is absent, then killing activatory receptors, which are also anchored in the cell membrane of NK cells, release toxic messengers which induce apoptosis in cells with poor expression of MHC molecules. Unlike granulocytes and macrophages, NK cells are always functionally active; thus, they do not need to be converted into an activated state by binding of specific cytokines. However, their activity can be enhanced by IL-12 or IFN-α and IFN-β, which are secreted, for example, by activated dendritic cells, monocytes and macrophages. NK cells produce large amounts of IFN-γ and other cytokines (IL-1, TNF-α), which leads to further immunological activation steps ( Chap. 8). Therefore, NK cells have, in addition to their cytotoxic effect, also an immunoregulatory importance.

7.1.5 Toll-Like Receptors

Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are members of a family of proteins that belong to the non-specific, innate immune system. TLRs are found in all vertebrates, including fish and reptiles. Their name is derived from the Toll gene, which was discovered in Drosophila melanogaster. It displays homology to the gene that encodes the IL-1 receptor. This suggests that the TLRs are members of an evolutionarily very old system. More than ten different TLRs have been discovered in most animal species, including humans, some of which exist only in certain species, such as in mice, but not in humans. TLRs are produced especially in dendritic cells, monocytes and macrophages, and belong to the group of pattern-recognition receptors. They are anchored in the cytoplasmic membrane (TLR1, TLR2, TLR4, TLR5, TLR6, TLR11) or in the endosomal membrane (TLR3, TLR7, TLR8, TLR9) and serve to detect pathogen-associated molecular patterns. These are structures that exist only on or in pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi). Therefore, TLRs endow the innate immune system with the ability to distinguish between “self” and “non-self”. TLR1 interacts specifically with peptidoglycan components of Gram-positive bacteria, whereas TLR4 binds to lipopolysaccharides of gram-negative bacteria and TLR5 recognizes flagellin, a protein of bacterial flagella (Table 7.1). The specific recognition of viral pathogen structures is performed mainly by TLR3, TLR7, TLR8 and TLR9, which are anchored in the endosomal membrane: TLR3 binds double-stranded RNA, TLR7 and TLR8 interact with single-stranded RNA and TLR9 binds to unmethylated CpG motifs in single-stranded and double-stranded DNA. Double-stranded RNAs are characteristic molecules that occur as genome components or intermediates of genome replication of RNA viruses; they do not exist in uninfected cells. The same applies to single-stranded DNA or unmethylated CpG motifs. These virus-specific components make contact with TLRs after they have been phagocytosed by dendritic cells, and are present in endosomes (Fig. 7.1). Intracellular signalling cascades are induced after interaction of various TLRs with different pathogen-specific ligand structures by means of their leucine-rich domains, which are located extracellularly or in the endosomal lumen. Some TLRs can also form heterodimeric complexes, the ligand-binding properties of which are then modified or can overlap. As a result of ligand binding, Toll/IL-1 receptor (TIR) domain proteins, such as myeloid differentiation primary response gene 88 (MyD88) and similar proteins that act as adapters, can attach to the conserved TIR domains of different TLRs, which are oriented to the cytoplasm. This multistage process that involves IL-1 receptor associated kinases leads to the activation of members of the Iκβ kinase (IKK) family, which phosphorylate Iκβ, the inhibitor of nuclear factor κB (NFκB). As a consequence, the transcriptional factor NFκB can enter the nucleus and induce the expression of various proinflammatory cytokines and adhesion proteins. Some members of the IKK family phosphorylate interferon regulatory factors 3 and 7, which thus exert their activity as transactive proteins inducing the expression of IFN-α and IFN-β. Alternatively, the signal translation can also be MyD88-independent by addition of (TIR-domain-containing adapter-inducing IFN-ß (TRIF) to the TIR domains of TLRs involving the participation of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase. Nevertheless, all the different pathways converge in the activation of the synthesis of inflammatory cytokines and adhesion factors as well as class I interferons.
Table 7.1

Human toll-like receptors (TLR), their ligands and the pathogens that activate them






Cytoplasmic membrane

Triacylated lipopeptides

Bacteria, mycoplasma


Cytoplasmic membrane


Gram-positive bacteria




Staphylococcus aureus




Trypanosoma cruzi


Measles virus


Cytoplasmic membrane

Diacylated lipopeptides



Endosomal membrane




Cytoplasmic membrane


Gram-negative bacteria

Viral membrane proteins

Respiratory syncytial virus

Mouse mammary tumour virus


Cytoplasmic membrane




Endosomal membrane



Guanosine analogues


Endosomal membrane




Endosomal membrane

Unmethylated CpG motifs in DNA

Bacteria, viruses


Cytoplasmic membrane

Profilin-like structures

Toxoplasma gondii

Protein components

Uropathogenic Escherichia coli

ds double stranded, ss single stranded

Fig. 7.1

Toll-like receptor (TLR)-mediated activation pathways (simplified illustration). TLRs are anchored in the cytoplasmic membrane (TLR1/2, TLR2, TLR4, TLR6/2, TLR5, TLR11) or endosomal membrane (TLR3, TLR7, TLR9) of dendritic cells or of macrophages/monocytes. The various TLRs interact with pathogen-specific molecular patterns. This process induces structural changes in the cytoplasmic Toll/IL-1 receptor (TIR) domains of the TLRs, which is followed by the interaction of TIR domain proteins, e.g. myeloid differentiation primary response gene 88 (MyD88) and TIR-domain-containing adapter-inducing interferon-ß (TRIF), characterized by death domains (DD). This interaction may induce various kinases, e.g. IL-1 receptor associated kinase (IRAK), Iκβ kinase (IKK), TNF-associated factor (TRAF) and TRAF-family-associated nuclear factor κB (NFκB) activator binding kinase (TBK), and signal cascades, resulting in the activation of NFκB or interferon regulatory factor (IRF) 3/7. These factors are functionally active and induce the transcription of genes encoding proinflammatory cytokines and class I interferons (IFN). ISRE interferon-stimulated response element, TIRAP Toll/IL-1 receptor domain containing adaptor protein, TRAM Toll/IL-1-receptor-domain-containing adapter-inducing interferon-ß-related adaptor molecule

Hence, TLRs are at the front line of the immune defence. After entry of a virus or other infectious agents, they become active first, and initiate the next steps of both the non-specific and the specific immune responses.

7.1.6 Acute-Phase Proteins

This large group of different proteins is part of the systemic reaction of the body to infection, inflammation or tissue injury. They are produced in hepatocytes, and their synthesis increases substantially by IL-1 and/or IL-6 stimulation. Both interleukins are secreted by activated granulocytes and macrophages, and are transported to the liver via the bloodstream. C-reactive protein (CRP) belongs to the acute-phase proteins, and is a non-specific marker of inflammation; it received its name because it reacts, together with Ca2+ ions, with the C polysaccharide of pneumococci. After an immunological stimulus, CRP is detectable in the blood within a few hours. It binds to phosphocholine, and thus recognizes phospholipid components in membrane components of viruses, bacteria and the body’s own cells that have been destroyed. CRP complexed with phosphocholine activates the complement system. It exerts an opsonizing effect, and is phagocytosed by neutrophils and macrophages. In this way, it activates other immune defence reactions.

Other members of acute-phase proteins include factors controlling blood coagulation such as fibrinogen, which is the precursor of fibrin, α1-glycoprotein and proteinase inhibitors such as α2-haptoglobin, α2-macroglobulin, α2-antichymotrypsin, α1-antitrypsin and C1-esterase inhibitor, which regulate coagulation and kinin cascades. In addition, various components of the complement system, such as the C3 component, are constituents of acute-phase proteins.

7.1.7 The Complement System

Complement is one of the most important mediators of inflammatory reactions. Inflammation is a consequence of infection, and is causally connected with the processes that are induced by the non-specific immune response. Complement is activated by two different pathways: the so-called classical pathway and the alternative activation pathway. However, both lead to the same mechanism, the lysis of virus-infected cells, bacteria, parasites or tumour cells. The classical pathway is induced by antigen–antibody complexes. By contrast, the alternative pathway is activated independently of the presence of immunoglobulins. The complement system connects the specific and the non-specific part of the immune system, but it is also a link between the cellular and the humoral branch of the immune response. Both complement activation pathways are based on several factors, which activate each other in a cascade-like process. The central reaction in which the two pathways converge is the proteolytic cleavage of complement component C3 into C3a and C3b by C3 convertase. In the alternative pathway, this transformation is induced spontaneously by certain sugar structures on the surface of bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa as well as tumour and virus-infected cells. In the classical pathway, it is indirectly triggered by antibodies bound to the surfaces of the respective pathogens or cells. The three subcomponents C1q, C1r and C1s attach to the Fc region of immunoglobulins to form the active unit (Fig. 7.2). This acts as a protease and processes component C4 and then component C2, whereupon the cleavage products C4b and C2a bind to the membrane surface of the target structure, i.e. the infected or transformed cell, the virus or bacterium, the fungus or protozoan. They form as a complex the above-mentioned C3 convertase of the classical pathway. During cleavage of C3, the conformation of the C3b subunit is modified in such a way that a reactive thioester bond is exposed. It reacts with functional side groups of amino acids, which are accessible on the surface of pathogens, cells or antigen–antibody complexes. As a result, the C3b subunit is covalently bound. The C3b subunit marks the structures as foreign, thus giving rise to a signal that induces phagocytosis by granulocytes, macrophages and monocytes.
Fig. 7.2

Complement activation via the classical pathway by a virus-infected cell containing viral proteins on its cell surface. Antibodies can specifically bind to these proteins. Two adjacent IgG antibodies or one bound IgM antibody can induce attachment of the complement components C1q, C1r and C1s to C1. C1 is a protease that cleaves component C4 into C4a and C4b as well as component C2 into C2a and C2b. C4b and C2a form a complex which attaches to the cytoplasmic membrane and, in turn, cleaves component C3. C3b is covalently bound to the structures of the cell surface. The complex of C4b, C2a and C3b processes component C5 into C5a and C5b. The latter, in turn, interact with the cell surface, causing the attachment of the membrane attack complex composed of C6, C7, C8 and C9, which induces the destruction of infected cells by pore formation. The C4a, C3a and C5a proteins, which are cleaved during this process, act as anaphylatoxins. The active components of the complement cascade are shown in red and their inactive precursors are shown in black

Binding of the C3b component to target structures on membranes concomitantly activates the lytic pathway of the complement system. At its inception, C5 convertase is formed, and comprises the C4b, C2a and C3b complex in the classical pathway. In the alternative pathway, the cleavage of the C5 component into C5a and C5b occurs independently of C4b and C2a. C5b binds to the surface-associated C3b and brings about the accumulation of factors, C6, C7, C8 and C9, which together make up the membrane attack complex. This complex is formed in the cell membranes, and intersperses them with pores; the pathogens or the cells are destroyed by lysis.

The small components C4a, C3a and C5a, which are cleaved as soluble products of C4, C3 and C5 during complement activation, make up the anaphylatoxins. These proteins play an important immunoregulatory role, since they induce the release of the histamine-rich content of granules of basophilis and mast cells into the surrounding region. They increase the permeability of vascular walls and induce contraction of smooth muscles. C5a exerts a chemotactic effect on macrophages and neutrophils, which subsequently migrate to the infection site and induce the further mechanisms of the immune defence.

7.2 What “Weapons” Are Available for the Specific Immune Response?

7.2.1 T Lymphocytes

T lymphocytes have a pivotal role in regulating the immune response, and in detecting and eliminating virus-infected or tumour cells from the organism. The specific recognition of altered cells occurs via T-cell receptor, a protein complex that is anchored in the plasma membrane of T lymphocytes. It is a heterodimer composed of an α and a β chain in about 95 % of T lymphocytes. Cells with γδ T-cell receptors are rarely found; these consist of heterodimers of a γ chain and a δ chain on the cell surface. A large proportion of them carry neither CD4 nor CD8 receptors. The function of γδ T cells has not been definitively resolved; they probably have regulatory functions and are involved in the suppression of the cellular immune response after an infection. They can also bind soluble proteins, such as phosphate derivatives and MHC class I like molecules, and are probably involved in eliminating epithelial infections. All protein chains of T-cell receptors are anchored in the cytoplasmic membrane of T cells through a carboxy-terminal, hydrophobic amino acid sequence. Their surface-exposed part possesses both a constant domain and a variable domain, which are stabilized by disulphide bonds. The variable domains are responsible for the specificity of the different T lymphocytes. Using them, they recognize foreign structures on the surface of their target cells. The diversity of T-cell receptors is achieved by a sophisticated process in which the genetic information of 50–100 different V gene segments is combined with that of a few D, J and C gene segments by somatic recombination and alternative splicing during differentiation of immature thymocytes into T lymphocytes, a process that occurs in the thymus during embryogenesis. Similar processes also occur during the generation of the variable regions of immunoglobulins (Sect. 7.2.2).

The CD3 protein complex is bound to the T-cell receptor. This complex is a heterotrimer composed of membrane-anchored γ, δ and ε chains, which transmit a signal to the ξ subunits, and thus into the cell, upon binding of T-cell receptor to foreign structures (Fig. 7.3). Other proteins that are associated with T-cell receptor are either CD4 or CD8 receptors, except in γδ T cells. Their occurrence leads to the subdivision of T lymphocytes into the subgroups of CD4+ TH cells and CD8+ cytotoxic T cells. They mediate the interaction of T cells with either MHC class II or MHC class I antigens during specific recognition of exogenous structures.
Fig. 7.3

The most important components in the interaction of T lymphocytes with antigen-presenting cells. (a) Recognition of virus-infected cells by cytotoxic T lymphocytes. The complex of MHC class I antigen and β2-microglobulin contains a peptide (red) in its antigen-binding cavity; this is derived from the degradation of viral proteins that are synthesized in the infected cell (productive viral infection, internal). This complex is specifically recognized by the T-cell receptor (TCR), which interacts with it by the variable domains of its α and β chains. Irrespective of this, the CD8 receptor protein (shaded in grey) of the cytotoxic T cell binds to a conserved domain in the MHC class I antigen. The protein interactions induce overall structural rearrangements in the T-cell receptor, and these are transmitted into the cell by the CD3 complex. The T lymphocyte releases cytotoxic proteins and perforins, which lyse and kill the infected cell. (b) Recognition of antigen-presenting cells by T-helper cells. The MHC class II antigen, which consists of an α and a β chain, contains in its antigen-binding cavity a peptide (red) that is derived from the degradation of viral proteins of other cells (external) and was actively ingested by a cell by endocytosis, e.g. a macrophage. This complex is specifically recognized by the T-cell receptor (TCR), which interacts with it by the variable domains of its α and β chains. Independently of this, the CD4 receptor protein (shaded in grey) of the T-helper cell binds to a conserved domain in the MHC class II antigen. The protein interactions induce structural rearrangements in the T-cell receptor, and these are transmitted into the cell by the CD3 complex. The T-helper cell reacts with the release of cytokines

In addition to the interaction of the T-cell receptor with an MHC–peptide complex on the side of antigen-presenting cells, a co-stimulatory signal is required for activation of T cells. This is usually mediated by the interaction of B7 proteins (B7.1 and B7.2) or CD40 proteins on antigen-presenting cells with their ligands, CD28 (cytotoxic T lymphocyte antigen 4) or CD40 on T cells. This co-stimulatory interaction is a prerequisite for IL-2-mediated proliferation of T lymphocytes. If these co-stimulatory signals fail to occur or are repressed by certain virus-specific factors, T cells can become anergic, i.e. functionally inoperative or unresponsive, or eventually die by induction of apoptosis. CD4+ T cells with high CD25 expression have been identified as important regulatory T cells, which decisively determine the immune response to self-antigens, and thus to self-tolerance and autoimmunity. Cytotoxic T Cells

CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes recognize virus-infected cells, lyse them and thus contribute decisively to restricting the infection in the body. By the T-cell receptor complex and the CD8 receptor, these cells bind to MHC class I proteins, which present peptide fragments of viral proteins as foreign components. MHC class I proteins or antigens are present on all cells of an organism, with the exception of brain cells ( Sect. 4.1.2). These proteins are heterodimers composed of a membrane-anchored α chain and a β2-microglobulin subunit (Fig. 7.3a). The surface-exposed moiety of the α chain is divided into three domains, the α1 and α2 domains are folded in such a way that an antiparallel β-sheet floor is formed, on which two α-helices are supported. The structure resembles a groove or cavity in which the ß-sheet forms the floor, and the α-helices shape the brims that line the trench (Fig. 7.4). Peptides with a length of approximately nine amino acids can be accommodated in this cavity. They are bound by a combination of hydrophobic and ionic interactions. These peptides are fragments of viral proteins that are recognized as foreign by the T-cell receptor of cytotoxic T cells, which then binds to them. If the cell is not infected, the hole is occupied by peptides originating from the cell itself. These are not recognized as foreign because cytotoxic T cells with such specificities are retained in the thymus and eliminated during T-cell maturation. Loading of MHC class I proteins with peptides occurs in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). This requires an active synthesis of viral proteins, a situation that exists only in infected cells, in which the viral genes are expressed and translated into proteins during viral replication (Fig. 7.5a). After synthesis, a small proportion of them are delivered to the proteasome complex in the cytosol and are degraded. The resulting peptides are transported into the ER lumen by a peptide transporter (transport-associated protein) that is integrated in the ER membrane. There, the peptides are accommodated into the cavity of MHC class I molecules, which are synthesized in the ER as membrane-anchored proteins. During this process, the moiety that protrudes into the lumen is later exposed at the cell surface; before the formation of stable complexes with β2-microglobulin and the peptide, the MHC α chain is bound to calnexin, an ER-membrane-associated protein that acts as a chaperone preventing the MHC amino acid chain from prematurely adopting its final folded state. The finally formed complex of peptide, α chain and β2-microglobulin is transported through the Golgi vesicles and the trans-Golgi network to the cell surface. It is anchored in the membrane, where it can be recognized by the T-cell receptors of CD8+ T lymphocytes. Then, T lymphocytes release cytotoxic factors (granzymes), radicals and perforins. The latter oligomerize under the influence of Ca2+ ions, and are embedded in the membrane of the cell that was recognized as foreign, they intersperse it with pores, leading to cell lysis. A prerequisite for this process is that the corresponding T lymphocytes have been stimulated by cytokines such as IL-2 and IFN-γ, which are secreted by TH cells. Additionally, cytokines such as IL-1, TNF and IFN-α, which are released from the cells of the innate immune system, e.g. by activated macrophages, increase the activity of cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Therefore, they represent a close connection between the unspecific immune responses and the specific cytotoxic T-cell response. Cytotoxic T cells are also capable of triggering a suicide programme (apoptosis;  Fig. 5.1) by their Fas ligands via contact with Fas receptors on the surface of target cells. In addition to these cytotoxic functions aimed at killing antigen-presenting cells, CD8+ T lymphocytes can also bring about a non-cytotoxic antiviral response by releasing INF-γ.
Fig. 7.4

Structure of the surface-exposed part of the MHC class I antigen (HLA-A2). (a) The complex of HLA-A2 and β2-microglobulin, based on data from X-ray structure analysis. Folding of the amino acid chain of HLA-A2 into the three domains, α1, α2 and α3, leads to the formation of the antigen-binding groove or cavity by the two α-helices of the α1 and α2 domains, which are represented by spirals. In the α3 domain, c indicates the carboxy terminus. This site of the amino acid chain represents the transition into the transmembrane region. This region was removed by proteolytic cleavage to generate the crystal structure. (b) The antigen-binding groove of HLA-A2 (top view). The floor is constituted of six antiparallel β-sheets (shown by arrows), which are lined by two α-helices lying on each side of the floor (spirals) (From Bjorkman 1987)

Fig. 7.5

Mechanisms of antigen processing, and loading of MHC antigens. (a) Loading of MHC class I antigens. Viral proteins (red) are synthesized in virus-infected cells during infection. A subset of them are degraded by the proteasome in the cytosol. A transporter protein, which is located in the membrane of the endoplasmic reticulum, delivers the resulting peptides into the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum. They attach to the antigen-binding groove of MHC class I molecules, which are embedded in the membrane of the endoplasmic reticulum, and project into its lumen. There, they associate with β2-microglobulin (β 2 M). The MHC class I–peptide complexes are transported via the Golgi apparatus and the trans-Golgi network to the cell surface. (b) Loading of MHC class II antigens. A viral component originating from another cell is ingested by a macrophage and degraded by enzymes in the endosome. This process produces peptides (red). MHC class II molecules are synthesized in the endoplasmic reticulum and their external domains are translocated into the lumen. These form a complex with a small protein, the invariant chain (shaded in grey), which binds to the antigen-binding cavity. At the trans-Golgi stage, vesicles fuse with endosomes, which contain the ingested and degraded viral components. The invariant chain is then degraded and replaced by viral peptides, which bind to the antigen-binding cleft. The MHC class II–peptide complexes are further transported to the cell surface, where they are anchored. mRNA messenger RNA

Every person possesses the genetic information encoding up to six different α chains of MHC class I antigens, which, in humans, are known as human leucocyte antigens (HLA), whereby two molecules are of type HLA-A, HLA-B and HLA-C, respectively. These genes reside in human chromosome 6 and are inherited according to Mendel’s laws. HLA molecules can be classified into different haplotypes, which differ in the amino acid sequences of α chains. Today, we know more than 30 different haplotypes of the HLA-A type, more than 60 of the HLA-B type and more than 15 of the HLA-C type, which can usually be divided into further subtypes. This high diversity in combination with the genetic inheritance rules determines that each person has his or her own set of HLA haplotypes. Thus, every human cell has a characteristic “make up”, except nerve cells and brain cells as well as certain cells of the eye. The different amino acid composition is primarily manifested in the residues lining the antigen-binding groove. Therefore, the different HLA haplotypes can bind only specific peptide segments. Today, it is known that this is the reason for the different genetic ability of individuals to react immunologically to infectious diseases. For example, if an individual has an HLA subtype that can poorly bind peptides of a specific viral protein, the respective infected cells will be neither recognized nor eliminated.

This mechanism also explains the genetically conditioned increased susceptibility of cheetahs to infections with feline corona virus and the relative high frequency of the associated feline infectious peritonitis ( Sect. 14.8). Cheetahs have a very narrow genetic base and are not able to present important protective epitopes of the viral envelope protein on their MHC class I molecules. The strongly reduced cellular immunity against this virus explains the frequent incidence of feline infectious peritonitis in cheetahs, a disease that occurs in domestic cats only sporadically. TH Cells

The receptors of TH cells bind in combination with CD4 to MHC class II antigens, which similarly to the class I antigens described earlier, contain peptides of viral origin. MHC class II antigens are present only on potentially antigen-presenting cells, such as monocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells and B and T lymphocytes. They are heterodimers composed of an α chain and a β chain, which are anchored in the membrane (Fig. 7.3b). The amino-terminal α1 and β1 domains are folded into an antigen-binding cavity, which can accommodate peptides with a length of up to 20 amino acids. In this case, binding seems not to be dependent on the specific amino acid sequence of the peptides, as known for MHC class I antigens. MHC class II antigens also possess a high genetic diversity: every person has one DP, DQ and DR allele, which are also subdivided into many different haplotypes. They are also coded on human chromosome six, and are also inherited according to Mendel’s laws. Theoretically, every person has six different HLA class II genes, of which there are many haplotypes and subtypes.

The process of loading HLA class II molecules with peptides is different from for HLA class I proteins: the proteins, from which the peptides are derived, are not synthesized in the antigen-presenting cells. Instead, HLA class II molecules bind fragments of proteins of other cells, e.g. virus-infected cells, which were phagocytosed by a cell carrying HLA class II molecules that has arrived in the endosomes, where they are proteolytically degraded (Fig. 7.5b). After their translation at the ER membrane, HLA class II molecules are also located in this cell compartment. After their synthesis and during transport, they are complexed with a third, small protein, the invariant chain. This is accommodated within the antigen-binding groove of the HLA class II heterodimer. The invariant chain is cleaved by proteolysis in the acidic pH environment only when the complex reaches the endosomes via the Golgi apparatus. This prevents the incorporation of cellular “self” peptides during transport. In the endosome, external, internalized foreign peptides encounter endogenous HLA class II proteins. They form complexes and are transported to the cell surface, where they become anchored and presented to CD4+ TH cells.

The interaction with antigen-presenting cells causes TH lymphocytes to release many different cytokines, thus stimulating the activity of other immunologically active cells. During their first contact with an antigen, naive TH cells (TH0 cells) secrete the entire range of possible factors. This quality is lost when TH0 cells differentiate into TH1 or TH2 cells. By secreting IL-2 and IFN-γ, TH1 cells promote especially the activation of other TH cells, as well as that of cytotoxic T cells and macrophages. In contrast, TH2 cells release preferentially IL-4, IL-5, IL-6 and IL-10, and stimulate the proliferation and differentiation of pre-B cells into antibody-producing plasma cells. Therefore, TH cells that are activated by antigen recognition regulate the immune response with the help of cytokines ( Chap. 8). Regulatory T Cells

CD4+ and CD25+ T lymphocytes, which are able to control autoreactive cells, were discovered only in 1995. Today, some phenotypes of these T cells are known to exert a regulatory effect not only on the innate, but also on the adaptive immune system. Regulatory T cells ensure that activated immune cells do not inflict excessive damage to the tissue owing to their inflammatory and cytotoxic properties. If there are not enough regulatory cells, immune cells can be activated without impediment. If they are self-reactive T cells, then they will lead to autoimmune disease and massive tissue damage. If there are too many regulatory T cells, the immune system is strongly suppressed. In such a case, infections cannot be adequately controlled and transformed cells are not eliminated. The risk of cancer increases.

Regulatory T cells also seem to play a role in viral infections. For example, different disease courses have been detected in infections with herpes simplex virus or hepatitis C virus. The viruses can be eliminated by the immune system if regulatory T cells do not restrict the immune response. However, this also leads to strong tissue damage, which is lethal if it is permanent.

7.2.2 B Lymphocytes and Antibodies Antibody Molecules and their Functions

Antibodies, or immunoglobulins, are bifunctional molecules. On the one hand, they have highly variable domains in the Fab (fragment antigen binding) region, which allow them to interact specifically with virtually every imaginable antigen (Fig. 7.6). This interaction allows in certain cases the direct neutralization of viruses when, for example, an infection of cells is prevented. On the other hand, in all molecules (subclasses) antibodies have an identical Fc (fragment constant or crystalline) region. Its functions include binding to Fc receptors that are located on the cell surface of macrophages, monocytes and neutrophils; this binding induces phagocytosis of the antigen–antibody complex. Furthermore, antigen–antibody complexes activate the classical pathway of the complement cascade, which, in turn, facilitates phagocytosis of complexes, leading to lysis of infected cells. Furthermore, the ADCC response of neutrophils is also one of the effects induced by immunoglobulins. These cells bind by their Fc receptors to antibodies that are associated with viral surface proteins on infected cells, damaging them by releasing the content of their granules.
Fig. 7.6

Structure of a typical antibody molecule represented by IgG. The folding of each domain and its stabilization by disulphide bonds is indicated schematically. Variable domains are depicted in red and constant domains are illustrated in black

General Structure

Antibodies are glycoproteins that are released in large amounts by plasma cells into the bloodstream. They consist of two light chains and two heavy chains, which are arranged in a Y-shaped basic structure (Fig. 7.6). Light chains are composed of a variable amino-terminal domain and a constant carboxy-terminal moiety. Within the variable domain there are regions with a highly increased variability in the amino acid sequence. These complementarity determining regions interact with the respective antigen and determine the specificity and affinity of binding. The individual domains are stabilized by intramolecular disulphide bonds. In humans, there are α and κ variants of light chains, which are characterized by differences in the constant region. Immunoglobulins can be classified into the classes IgM, IgG, IgA, IgD and IgE on the basis of their heavy chains, which differ in terms of type and size. Heavy chains also have a variable domain in the amino-terminal regions, which is followed by a differing number of constant domains: there are three constant domains in the heavy γ, α and δ chains of IgG, IgA and IgD, whereas four constant domains are present in the μ chain of IgM and in the ε chain of IgE. Light and heavy chains are combined together in such a way in the antibody molecule that the variable amino-terminal region and the following constant domains of the corresponding light and heavy chains interact with each other. They form the two arms of the Y-shaped structure, which are also known as Fab regions. One intermolecular disulphide bond covalently links the light and heavy chains. Heavy chains dimerize beyond the second constant domain and form the stem of the Y-shaped structure, also known as the Fc region. The two heavy chains are also interconnected by a disulphide bridge.

IgM Antibodies

A variant of these immunoglobulins is present in the cytoplasmic membrane of pre-B cells, and functions as an antigen receptor; the B cell and in consequence also the plasma cell remains specific for the corresponding antigen that binds to them. Another IgM variant is secreted by the cells upon antigen stimulation; it is important for the early activation of the complement system. The IgM antibodies released are present as complexes that are constituted of five units, whose Fc regions are linked by short peptides, the J chains. IgM molecules are the first antibodies against a particular pathogen produced during an infection. Their proportion to total immunoglobulin in serum is about 10 %. IgM antibodies bind antigens with a relatively low affinity.

IgD Antibodies

Similar to IgM, IgD is produced in small quantities in the early phase of infection, and is also present as a membrane-associated molecule on B cells. it accounts for less than 1 % of total immunoglobulin. Its function has not been conclusively resolved. It is believed that IgD also acts an as antigen receptor and is necessary for the antigen-induced differentiation of pre-B cells into plasma cells.

IgG Antibodies

IgG constitutes 75 % of total immunoglobulin, and is the most abundant antibody population in serum. It is the most important antibody and confers a protective immune response in cases of repeated contact with the same pathogens. In contrast to IgM, IgG has a very high affinity; thus, it binds to antigens with high specificity. There are four different IgG subclasses, which have different functions, and are produced depending on the pathogen and the antigen type. The IgG1 and IgG3 subclasses predominate in the early phase of viral infections, and are the only IgG subclass that can activate the complement system. In the case of infections that occurred a long time ago, only IgG3 antibodies are still found. IgG2 antibodies are induced principally by bacterial polysaccharide structures. IgG-specific Fc receptors are located on macrophages, monocytes and neutrophils, which are stimulated to phagocytose by binding of the antigen–antibody complex. Furthermore, IgG antibodies induce the mechanisms of the ADCC response.

IgA Antibodies

The proportion of IgA in the total serum immunoglobulin is only 15 %. However, it is the predominant antibody in the mucous membranes and body secretions such as saliva, bronchial fluid and urogenital secretions. It is produced in the plasma cells of the submucosa, and is secreted into the mucous membranes by an active mechanism mainly through epithelial cells. For this purpose, the monomeric IgA molecules are linked to dimers by a J chain. IgA dimers bind to an IgA receptor on the “back” of epithelial cells, they are internalized together with the receptor and are transported to the “front” of the epithelium. The receptor protein remains associated with the IgA dimer as a secretory piece, and stabilizes the complex in the mucous membrane. IgA play an important role in the local defence mechanism against infections in mucosal regions, and in the prevention of recurrent infections with the same pathogen type.

IgE Antibodies

IgE antibodies are produced particularly against parasites, and induce the release of histamines by binding to the corresponding receptors on mast cells and basophils by their Fc region. IgE is found only in trace amounts in the serum of healthy people. However, its level is significantly increased in allergic individuals. Here, in the case of recurrences of the same antigen, it is jointly responsible for the allergic reactions and the resulting histamine and prostaglandin release, for example, in the bronchial tree, and for the anaphylactic shock reaction. Generation of Antibody Diversity and Antibody Subclasses

B cells produce antibodies, and are thus required, along with T lymphocytes, for the establishment of a specific immune response. B cells originate from bone marrow pluripotent stem cells, which are the progenitors of all haematopoietic cells, and develop into precursor B cells by the influence of cytokines (IL-3). IL-4, IL-5 und IL-6 are necessary for further differentiation into pre-B cells. During this process, somatic recombinations occur at the DNA level, and lead to rearrangements of the variable regions of immunoglobulin genes. Initially, the D and J segments of heavy chains are mutually combined. Subsequently, one of more than 100 V segments is randomly added in front, so that a defined arrangement of VDJ regions is present in the pre-B cell. These are joined to the constant regions of the μ chain by splicing. Subsequently, the V and J segments of the light α and κ chains are rearranged and linked with the C regions by splicing during transcription. The corresponding protein chains are synthesized, and are transported to the cell surface. In this phase, pre-B cells have membrane-bound IgM molecules on their surfaces and secrete small amounts of IgM molecules with the corresponding specificities. The many millions of possible combinations of the VDJ regions of heavy chains, or the VJ segments of light chains, give rise to the huge antibody diversity, which ensures that virtually for every potential antigen, there is a specific IgM molecule. They are continuously present in low concentrations in the relevant cells as well as in the peripheral blood, and can neutralize pathogens. The soluble IgM antibodies form complexes with antigens and act as inducers of the complement cascade. On the other hand, the membrane-associated IgM molecules act as antigen receptors and induce the incorporation of the resulting membrane-bound antigen–antibody complex. The proteins are degraded in the endosomes, where foreign antigen peptides can bind to HLA class II proteins. From there they return to the cell surface as an MHC complex. In this phase, pre-B cells become antigen-presenting cells, which are bound by TH cells with the corresponding specificities of T-cell receptors, and then produce a large number of different cytokines ( Chap. 8). Thereby, B cells are stimulated to proliferate, and differentiate into plasma cells. The immunoglobulin class switch also occurs in this phase, i.e. the variable domains of heavy chains are combined by alternative splicing with the corresponding segments of γ chains or – depending on the cytokine signals received – the other heavy chains. Mutations occur in the DNA sequences encoding the highly variable complementarity determining regions in the V domains. Antibodies obtain their final, high-affinity specificity by this maturation step via somatic hypermutation. When Does a Specific Immune Response Occur in an Organism?

The unspecific, non-adaptive immune responses are innate, and are already present in newborn organisms. In contrast, the specific cellular and humoral defence mechanisms develop postnatally. To be able to develop the high-affinity binding of T-cell receptors of TH and cytotoxic T cells as well as that of the variable regions of antibodies, the immune system and the organism must have contact with the respective viruses and other infectious agents. These processes occur after birth, except for transplacentally transmitted viruses. If the embryo is infected during gestation, it is able to develop its own IgM and IgG antibodies only from the 22nd week of pregnancy. In humans, newborns receive a first specific protection by maternal antibodies (maternal immunity), which reach the bloodstream of the child during pregnancy as well as via breastfeeding, and assume explicit protective functions (maternal passive immunity) for about 6 months; thereafter, they are gradually degraded. The basis for this is the human placenta type (haemochorial placenta), which is based on an extensive dissolution of structural parts of the maternal placenta. In this case, the maternal blood directly irrigates the fetal capillaries that are surrounded by the chorion membrane, which is permeable to IgG antibodies.

The situation is different in animals: in horses and swine, there is a complete separation of the fetal and maternal side of the placenta (epitheliochorial placenta), whereas in ruminants and carnivores (canines and felines) the endothelium of the uterus, and to differing degrees, also the submucosa of the uterus are disintegrated (syndesmochorial placenta in ruminants, and endotheliochorial placenta in carnivores). The different types of placentas have a direct influence on the transfer of maternal antibodies: the more completely the maternal and fetal sides are separated from each other, the more impermeable is the placenta to immunoglobulins. In contrast to humans, immunoglobulins are transmitted in ruminants and swine exclusively and in dogs and cats predominantly via colostrum, the protein-rich first milk, which contains vitamins, antibodies and leucocytes and is produced until a few days after birth. The resorption of antibodies by young animals is effective only during the first few hours of life.

7.3 How Does the Antiviral Defence Elicit Autoimmune Diseases?

The immune system enables organisms to develop antibodies and T-cell receptors with specificities for many millions of antigens. At the same time, it must be ensured that they recognize only foreign antigens without attacking the structures of the organism itself. When the immune system no longer distinguishes between “self” and “foreign” and reacts against the body’s own structures and cells, autoimmune reactions can develop. In the other case, a tolerance is established.

Normally, during embryogenesis and later also in the thymus, T cells with receptors are selected and retained, and these recognize the body’s own structures. They do not reach the peripheral blood, but they perish through apoptosis, i.e. by induction of programmed cell death. This clonal selection ensures that no TH cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes with self-specificities are present in the organism. Inasmuch as the antibody production is dependent on the help of T cells, immunoglobulins with corresponding self-recognition should not be present. Viral infections occasionally trigger autoimmune reactions. Some viruses encode proteins that resemble cellular polypeptides, but are not identical with them. This is the case, among others, in measles virus, which codes for a protein with similarity to the basic myelin of the brain, in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which possesses several protein segments with homology to various cell components, and in Epstein–Barr virus ( Sects. 15.3,  18.1, and  19.5). Because of these similarities, these viruses induce immunological cross-reactions with the respective cellular proteins. The imitation of cellular proteins is referred to as molecular mimicry. After a relevant infection, cytotoxic T lymphocytes may be present, and these attack and destroy the body’s own cells. Cross-reactive TH cells can induce the production of immunoglobulins that are directed against cellular proteins. The resulting antigen–antibody complexes can trigger all kinds of defence responses, ranging from the attack of neutrophils with the release of inflammatory factors to the activation of the complement cascade with its cell-damaging effects. If these complexes accumulate in the synovial space, then the induced immune responses can cause severe arthritis. Such processes are a possible cause of postinfectious reactive arthritis that, for example, is associated with rubella virus or parvovirus infections ( Sects. 14.6 and  20.1).

However, there are also other mechanisms. During the primary infection, Epstein–Barr virus induces infectious mononucleosis, a polyclonal activation of T cells that react with an increased cytokine release, and thus also stimulate B cells polyclonally ( Sect. 19.5). Many B and T lymphocytes are stimulated regardless of the antigen specificity. In many patients with an acute Epstein–Barr virus infection, immune responses against various endogenous structures are found; the increased activation rate is manifested as lymph node swelling and lymphadenopathy. The organism reacts to viral infections with the production of IFN-α, IFN-β and IFN-γ. These interferons induce, among other things, an increased expression of MHC class I and MHC class II proteins on the surface of uninfected cells. This MHC overexpression can lead to immunological side effects, and the corresponding cells can be attacked by T lymphocytes. In the case of Epstein–Barr virus infections, this leads to mononucleosis. In this case, the non-specific proliferation can lead to monoclonal or polyclonal malignant cells and Burkitt’s lymphoma by additional, long-lasting stimulatory factors (such as malaria, chromosomal translocations). Even the effect of superantigens leads to immunological attack on the body’s own cells. On the one hand, such protein molecules bind to specific Vβ chains of T-cell receptors, and on the other hand, they bind to MHC class II proteins on the surface of antigen-presenting cells. In this way, both cell types are brought into contact with each other in an antigen-independent manner. This non-specific stimulation leads to oligoclonal expansion of T cells with certain β chains in the receptors, which are also directed against the body’s own cellular structures. In addition, the release of corresponding cytokines can be observed. There is evidence that rabies virus, mouse mammary tumour virus and several other retroviruses – possibly also HIV – have superantigens ( Sects. 15.1 and  18.1).

7.4 How Can Viruses Evade the Immune System?

Several viruses have evolved mechanisms which enable them to evade the immune response of their hosts. This ability can often be attributed to inaccurately functioning viral enzymes such as RNA polymerases, which usually replicate the viral genomes. Consequently, especially RNA viruses (e.g. hepatitis C virus, HIV and influenza viruses) exhibit very high mutation rates, and continuously change the sequence and structures of their surface-exposed protein regions under the selective pressure of antibodies, and thus escape the neutralizing effect of immunoglobulins (quasi-species;  Sects. 14.5,  16.3 and  18.1). Furthermore, HIV alters the cytokine and chemokine patterns that are produced by infected cells. As a result, the immune system and in particular the cytotoxic T lymphocytes become ineffective ( Sect. 18.1).

Other viruses have also found simple but ingenious mechanisms to circumvent the immune response of the host organism and to establish persistent infections. Papillomaviruses ( Sect. 19.3) infect, for example, the cells of the outermost layers of the skin, an ecological niche that is not easily accessible to the immune system. Herpes simplex viruses do not produce viral proteins in nerve cells during latency; hence, the immune system cannot recognize them as infected cells. By contrast, hepatitis B viruses ( Sect. 19.1) produce large amounts of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) during infection, which is then present in high concentrations in the blood and is captured by HBsAg-specific neutralizing antibodies.

In addition to these rather untargeted mechanisms to evade the immune response, many viruses, especially DNA viruses, have developed special approaches by which they can specifically suppress defence responses. This enables them to establish persistent infections. The commonest strategy is the reduction of MHC antigens on the surface of infected cells. This impedes recognition by the cellular immune response; this alternative is used by adenoviruses, herpesviruses (cytomegalovirus, human herpesvirus 8 and Epstein–Barr virus) and also by human immunodeficiency viruses. The infected cells can no longer present viral peptide antigens, cytotoxic T lymphocytes do not recognize infected cells and the virus escapes elimination ( Sects. 18.1,  19.4 and  19.5). The molecular mechanisms which viruses have developed for this purpose are varied: by the action of specific viral proteins, adenoviruses and cytomegaloviruses retain newly synthesized MHC class I proteins in the ER, and hinder their transport to the cell surface. On the other hand, human immunodeficiency viruses has protein functions which destabilize the surface-exposed MHC proteins in order to induce their endocytosis and subsequent proteolytic degradation. To prevent MHC-depleted cells being attacked by NK cells, cytomegaloviruses encode an additional MHC class I protein homologue that interacts with KIR receptors, thus preventing the development of the cytotoxic activity of NK cells ( Sect. 19.5). De facto, in almost all immune attack strategies against viruses, there are examples of specific escape or infiltration strategies in the context of viral immune evasion.

Interferons have a strong antiviral activity ( Chap. 8). To avoid this non-specific immune response, several viruses interfere with the signalling pathways that activate the expression of interferon genes. They prevent the phosphorylation of signal transducer and activator of transcription (STAT) proteins and induce their degradation (paramyxoviruses;  Sect. 15.3) and have protein components that inhibit the activity of protein kinase R or 2′-5′-oligoadenylate synthetase, impede its binding to double-stranded RNA, or degrade it (reoviruses, human immunodeficiency viruses, adenoviruses, Epstein–Barr virus, poxviruses;  Sects. 17.2,  18.1 and  19.4 19.6). Alternatively, many viruses have developed mechanisms that inhibit cytokine synthesis or restrict their effects. Asfarviruses code for a protein with homology to the factor Iκβ, which prevents activation of NFκB, and thus inhibits the synthesis of many immunologically important gene products by interfering with the signalling pathway ( Sect. 19.7). Especially, pox viruses, but also some herpesviruses, produce proteins that are homologous to different cytokines or chemokine receptors, which are secreted by infected cells and intercept the soluble mediators of the innate immune response in the blood ( Sects. 19.5 and  19.6). However, particularly herpesviruses use the synthesis of chemokine analogues to block the corresponding receptors, which represents a frequently used viral strategy to suppress the immune response.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susanne Modrow
    • 1
    Email author
  • Dietrich Falke
    • 2
  • Uwe Truyen
    • 3
  • Hermann Schätzl
    • 4
  1. 1.Inst. Medizinische, Mikrobiologie und HygieneUniversität RegensburgRegensburgGermany
  2. 2.MainzGermany
  3. 3.Veterinärmedizinische Fak., Inst. Tierhygiene undUniversität LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  4. 4.Helmholtz Zentrum München, Institut für VirologieTU MünchenMünchenGermany

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