Antigen-specific human T cell clones specific for defined peptides of influenza A hemagglutinin were found to be rendered unresponsive by incubation with moderately high concentrations of antigen. This was the case whether the synthetic peptide antigen was present for the duration of the culture or the cloned T cells were preincubated with antigen for 3-18 h at 37 degrees C, before stimulation with T-depleted irradiated sheep erythrocyte non-rosette-forming lymphocytes (E-) pulsed with the optimal dose of peptide. Tolerance could not be overcome by culture with various numbers of E- cells and antigen. The induction of unresponsiveness was antigen specific, since it depended upon incubation with the appropriate peptide recognized by that clone. In addition, the tolerant T cells remained unresponsive to stimulation with the specific peptide for at least 7 d after induction even though maintained in culture in the presence of T cell growth factor. This state of antigen-specific unresponsiveness is akin to immunological tolerance. Furthermore, the experiments reported here demonstrate that the helper T cell clone can be inhibited by the relevant peptide in the absence of any suppressor cells or their precursors. This suggests that antigen-induced unresponsiveness need not always depend on the presence of suppressor T cells. The induction of tolerance in T cell clones does not result in early T cell death, since cells that no longer proliferate in response to the specific antigen and accessory cells still proliferate in response to T cell growth factor.

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