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MHC class I-restricted CD8 cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) are essential for protective immunity to Mycobacterium tuberculosis in animal models but their role in humans remains unclear. We therefore studied subjects who had successfully contained M. tuberculosis infection in vivo, i.e. exposed healthy household contacts and individuals with inactive self-healed pulmonary tuberculosis. Using the ELISPOT assay for IFN-gamma, we screened peptides from ESAT-6, a secreted antigen that is highly specific for M. tuberculosis. We identified a novel nonamer epitope: unstimulated peripheral blood-derived CD8 T cells displayed peptide-specific IFN-gamma release ex vivo while CD8 T cell lines and clones exhibited HLA-A68.02-restricted cytolytic activity and recognized endogenously processed antigen. The frequency of CD8 CTL specific for this single M. tuberculosis epitope, 1/2500 peripheral blood lymphocytes, was equivalent to the combined frequency of all IFN-gamma-secreting purified protein derivative-reactive T cells ex vivo. This highly focused CTL response was maintained in an asymptomatic contact over 2 years and is the most potent antigen-specific antimycobacterial CD8 CTL response hitherto described. Thus, human M. tuberculosis-specific CD8 CTL are not necessarily associated with active disease per se. Rather, our results are consistent with a protective role for these ESAT-6-specific CD8 T cells in the long-term control of M. tuberculosis in vivo in humans.

Original publication




Journal article


Eur J Immunol

Publication Date





2713 - 2721


Amino Acid Sequence, Antigen Presentation, Antigens, Bacterial, Bacterial Proteins, HLA-A Antigens, Humans, Interferon-gamma, Molecular Sequence Data, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Peptide Fragments, T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic, Tuberculosis