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We characterized antigen-specific CD4(+) T cells in six patients with treatment-resistant
Lyme arthritis, using an HLA-DRB1*0401 major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II tetramer covalently loaded with OspA(164-175), an immunodominant epitope of Borrelia burgdorferi. Direct analysis of OspA-tetramer binding CD4(+) cells in patients expressing the HLA-DRB1*0401 allele revealed frequencies of between <0.005 and 0.1% in peripheral blood (n = 6), and between <0.005 and 3.1% in synovial fluid (n = 3). OspA-tetramer(+)CD4(+) cells were directly cloned at 1 cell per well and expanded by mitogen and IL-2 on allogeneic feeder cells. As measured by [(3)H]thymidine incorporation, 95% of 168 T cell clones from synovial fluid binding the OspA-tetramer were antigen-reactive. Clones generated from peripheral blood revealed a different pattern of responsiveness when compared with clones generated from synovial fluid, as measured by proliferation, IFN-gamma, and IL-13 secretion. These clones, selected on the basis of their peptide binding, also responded to whole protein, but with a different cytokine profile. Our studies demonstrate that MHC class II tetramers can be used in humans to directly identify, isolate, and characterize antigen-reactive T cells from an inflammatory compartment.