The K blood group remains an important target in hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN), with no immune prophylaxis available. The aim was to characterize the T helper (Th) response to K as a key step in designing specific immunotherapy and understanding the immunogenicity of the antigen. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from K-negative women who had anti-K antibodies following incompatible pregnancy, and from unimmunized controls, were screened for proliferative responses to peptide panels spanning the K or k single amino acid polymorphism. A dominant K peptide with the polymorphism at the C-terminus elicited proliferation in 90% of alloimmunized women, and it was confirmed that responding cells expressed helper CD3(+)CD4(+) and "memory" CD45RO(+) phenotypes, and were MHC class II restricted. A relatively high prevalence of background peptide responses independent of alloimmunization may contribute to K immunogenicity. First, cross-reactive environmental antigen(s) pre-prime Kell-reactive Th cells, and, secondly, the K substitution disrupts an N-glycosylation motif, allowing the exposed amino acid chain to stimulate a Th repertoire that is unconstrained by self-tolerance in K-negative individuals. The dominant K peptide was effective in inducing linked suppression in HLA-transgenic mice and can now be taken forward for immunotherapy to prevent HDN due to anti-K responses.
Stephen, J., Cairns, L. S., Pickford, W. J., Vickers, M. A., Urbaniak, S. J., & Barker, R. N. (2012). Identification, immunomodulatory activity, and immunogenicity of the major helper T-cell epitope on the K blood group antigen. Blood, 119(23), 5563-5574. https://doi.org/10.1182/blood-2012-02-410324