Mechanistic understanding and significance of small peptides interaction with MHC class II molecules for therapeutic applications

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Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules are expressed by antigen-presenting cells and stimulate CD4+ T cells, which initiate humoral immune responses. Over the past decade, interest has developed to therapeutically impact the peptides to be exposed to CD4+ T cells. Structurally diverse small molecules have been discovered that act on the endogenous peptide exchanger HLA-DM by different mechanisms. Exogenously delivered peptides are highly susceptible to proteolytic cleavage in vivo; however, it is only when successfully incorporated into stable MHC II–peptide complexes that these peptides can induce an immune response. Many of the small molecules so far discovered have highlighted the molecular interactions mediating the formation of MHC II–peptide complexes. As potential drugs, these small molecules open new therapeutic approaches to modulate MHC II antigen presentation pathways and influence the quality and specificity of immune responses. This review briefly introduces how CD4+ T cells recognize antigen when displayed by MHC class II molecules, as well as MHC class II–peptide-loading pathways, structural basis of peptide binding and stabilization of the peptide–MHC complexes. We discuss the concept of MHC-loading enhancers, how they could modulate immune responses and how these molecules have been identified. Finally, we suggest mechanisms whereby MHC-loading enhancers could act upon MHC class II molecules.

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