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Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Jul 22;279(1739):2777-85. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0005. Epub 2012 Mar 21.

How do antigenically varying pathogens avoid cross-reactive responses to invariant antigens?

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  • 1Department of Biology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA.


Pathogens such as trypanosomes and malaria use antigenic variation to evade immune responses and prolong the duration of infections. As pathogens typically express more than one antigen, even relatively rare conserved antigens might be expected to trigger cross-reactive immune responses capable of clearing the infection. We use simple mathematical models that explicitly consider the dynamic interplay between the replicating pathogen, immune responses to different antigens and immune exhaustion to explore how pathogens can escape the responses to both variable and invariant (conserved) antigens. Our results suggest two hypotheses. In the first, limited quantities of invariant antigens on each pathogen may lead to saturation in killing by cross-reactive responses. In the second, antigenic variation of the dominant antigens prolongs the duration of infection sufficiently to allow for exhaustion of the cross-reactive responses to subdominant, invariant epitopes prior to their being able to control the infection. These hypotheses make distinct predictions: the former predicts that cross-reactive responses will always be ineffective while the latter predicts that appropriately timed treatment could, by preventing exhaustion, lead to the generation of long-lasting protective cross-reactive immunity and thus act similarly to a vaccine.

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