The proliferative response of peripheral blood T cells to the spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, can be as pronounced in unexposed normal individuals as it is in
Lyme disease patients. This finding was observed using three geographically distinct isolates of B. burgdorferi. The response is not due to a lipopolysaccharide effect of the spirochete, is sensitive to Proteinase K, and requires antigen processing. It does not result from cross-reactivity of memory T cells that may be reactive to another antigen; the proliferative response to B. burgdorferi is equally distributed between naive (CD29-, CD45RO-) and memory (CD29+, CD45RO+) T cells, whereas the tetanus response is confined to the memory subset. In support of this notion, cord blood specimens that contain almost entirely naive T cells, respond as vigorously to B. burgdorferi as T cells from normal adult peripheral blood. A large panel of CD4+ T cell clones has been derived that are specific for B. burgdorferi. The majority of these clones are reactive to B. burgdorferi in the presence only of autologous HLA-DR molecules. Collectively, these data suggest that the T cell response from normal individuals is more likely due to multiple antigenic epitopes within Borrelial proteins than a superantigen response.