Comprehensive analysis of the α-fetoprotein-specific CD8+ T cell responses in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the fifth most common malignancy worldwide, with a poor prognosis and limited therapeutic options. Therefore, the development of novel therapeutic strategies is of high priority. α-Fetoprotein (AFP) is overexpressed in the majority of HCCs. Priming of immune responses against AFP results in significant protective antitumoral T cell responses in the mouse model. Little information is available about the hierarchy, breadth, frequency, and peripheral versus intrahepatic distribution of AFP-specific CD8+ T cell responses in patients with HCC. To address these important issues we comprehensively analyzed CD8+ T cell responses against full-length AFP in peripheral blood, tumor liver tissue, and nontumor liver tissue from patients with HCC using overlapping AFP peptides. The AFP-specific CD8+ T cell response was also tested in peripheral blood and liver from patients chronically infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) and compared to the HCV-specific CD8+ T cell response. The majority of patients with HCC showed AFP-specific responses, with many responses directed against previously unreported epitopes. These responses were primarily detectable in the HCC tissue and mainly targeted the C-terminus of AFP. Interestingly, AFP-specific T cells were not only found in patients with HCC but also in patients with chronic HCV infection, other liver diseases, and less frequently in healthy subjects. Conclusion: In patients with HCC, a high frequency of AFP-specific CD8+ T cells directed against different epitopes suggest that AFP has a strong and broad immunogenicity. Further, CD8+ T cells specific for the self-antigen AFP are present in the normal T cell repertoire and are not centrally or peripherally deleted. Our results provide support for strategies to boost AFP-specific CD8+ T cell responses in patients with HCC but also demonstrate a diversity of immune responses that may be needed for protection. (HEPATOLOGY 2008;48:1821-1833.)