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The T cell co-receptor CD8αβ enhances T cell sensitivity to antigen, however studies indicate CD8αα has the converse effect and acts as a co-repressor. Using a combination of Thymic Leukemia (TL) antigen tetramer, which directly binds CD8αα, anti-CD161, and anti-Vα7.2 antibodies we have been able for the first time to clearly define CD8αα expression on human CD8 T cells subsets. In healthy controls CD8αα is most highly expressed by CD161 "bright" (CD161++) mucosal associated invariant T (MAIT) cells, with CD8αα expression highly restricted to the TCR Vα7.2+ cells of this subset. We also identified CD8αα-expressing populations within the CD161 "mid" (CD161+) and "negative" (CD161-) non-MAIT CD8 T cell subsets and show TL-tetramer binding to correlate with expression of CD8β at low levels in the context of maintained CD8α expression (CD8α+CD8β(low)). In addition, we found CD161-CD8α+CD8β(low) populations to be significantly expanded in the peripheral blood of HIV-1 and hepatitis B (mean of 47 and 40% of CD161- T cells respectively) infected individuals. Such CD8αα expressing T cells are an effector-memory population (CD45RA-, CCR7-, CD62L-) that express markers of activation and maturation (HLA-DR+, CD28-, CD27-, CD57+) and are functionally distinct, expressing greater levels of TNF-α and IFN-γ on stimulation and perforin at rest than their CD8α+CD8β(high) counterparts. Antigen-specific T cells in HLA-B(∗)4201+HIV-1 infected patients are found within both the CD161-CD8α+CD8β(high) and CD161-CD8α+CD8β(low) populations. Overall we have clearly defined CD8αα expressing human T cell subsets using the TL-tetramer, and have demonstrated CD161-CD8α+CD8β(low) populations, highly expanded in disease settings, to co-express CD8αβ and CD8αα. Co-expression of CD8αα on CD8αβ T cells may impact on their overall function in vivo and contribute to the distinctive phenotype of highly differentiated populations in HBV and HIV-1 infection.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Immunol

Publication Date





CD8+ T cells, CD8α, HIV-1, hepatitis B, hepatitis C