When complexed with antigenic peptides, human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I (HLA-I) molecules initiate CD8+ T cell responses via interaction with the T cell receptor (TCR) and co-receptor CD8. Peptides are generally critical for the stable cell surface expression of HLA-I molecules. However, for HLA-I alleles such as HLA-B*35:01, peptide-deficient (empty) heterodimers are thermostable and detectable on the cell surface. Additionally, peptide-deficient HLA-B*35:01 tetramers preferentially bind CD8 and to a majority of blood-derived CD8+ T cells via a CD8-dependent binding mode. Further functional studies reveal that peptide-deficient conformers of HLA-B*35:01 do not directly activate CD8+ T cells, but accumulate at the immunological synapse in antigen-induced responses, and enhance cognate peptide-induced cell adhesion and CD8+ T cell activation. Together, these findings indicate that HLA-I peptide occupancy influences CD8 binding affinity, and reveal a new set of regulators of CD8+ T cell activation, mediated by the binding of empty HLA-I to CD8.
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