Synthetic peptides corresponding to sequences of HLA class I molecules have inhibitory effects on T cell function. The peptides investigated in this study have sequences corresponding to the relatively conserved region of the alpha 1 helix of HLA class I molecules that overlaps the "public epitope" Bw4/Bw6. These HLA-derived peptides exhibit inhibitory effects on T lymphocytes and have beneficial effects on the survival of allogenic organ transplants in mice and rats. Peptides corresponding to the Bw4a epitope appear most potent as they inhibit the differentiation of T cell precursors into mature cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) and target cell lysis by established CTL lines and clones. To elucidate the mechanism through which these peptides mediate their inhibitory effect on T lymphocytes, peptide binding proteins were isolated from T cell lysates. We show that the inhibitory Bw4a peptide binds two members of the heat-shock protein (HSP) 70 family, constitutively expressed HSC70 and heat-inducible HSP70. Peptide binding to HSC/HSP70 is sequence specific and follows the rules defined by the HSC70 binding motif. Most intriguing, however, is the strict correlation of peptide binding to HSC/HSP70 and the functional effects such that only inhibitory peptides bind to HSC70 and HSP70 whereas noninhibitory peptides do not bind. This correlation suggests that small molecular weight HLA-derived peptides may modulate T cell responses by directly interacting with HSPs. In contrast to numerous reports of HSP70 expression at the surface of antigen-presenting cells and some tumor cells, we find no evidence that HSC/HSP70 are expressed at the surface of the affected T cells. Therefore, we believe that the peptides' immunodulatory effects are not mediated through a signaling event initiated by interaction of peptide with surface HSP, but favor a model similar to the action of other immunomodulatory compounds, FK506 and cyclosporin A, with a role for HSC/HSP70 similar to that for immunophilins, FKBPs and CyP40.

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