Three new possible autoepitopes in ME/CFS

Paolo Maccallini


I have performed a set of analysis on experimental data already published about autoimmunity to muscarinic receptors in ME/CFS. My predictions are that extracellular loop 2 and 3, and also transmembrane helix 5 of both muscarinic cholinergic receptors 4 and 3, are main autoantigens in a subset of ME/CFS patients. Moreover, I have found that autoimmunity to M4 and M3 ChR is independent of autoimmunity to beta 2 adrenergic receptor, also reported in ME/CFS patients.  


Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a debilitating disease characterized by cognitive deficits, fatigue, orthostatic intolerance with symptoms exacerbated after exertion (post-exertional malaise, PEM) (IOM, 2015). This disease has no known cause but several abnormalities have been observed in energy metabolism (Tomas C. and Newton J. 2018), immune system, gut flora (Blomberg J. et al. 2018), brain (Zeineh MM. et al. 2014). A possible role for autoantibodies in the pathogenesis of the disease has been suggested by the finding of reactivity of patient sera to two nuclear antigens (Nishikai, et al., 1997), (Nishikai, et al., 2001), to cardiolipin (Hokama, et al., 2009), to HSP60 (Elfaitouri A. et al. 2013), and to muscarinic cholinergic (M ChR) and beta adrenergic receptors (ß AdR) (Tanaka S et al. 2003), (Loebel M et al. 2016); reactivity that was significantly elevated when compared to healthy contols. Reactivity to adrenergic and muscarinic Ch receptors has been confirmed by two independent groups, but these results have not been published yet (R). A role for autoantibodies in at least a subgroup of patients has also been suggested by a response to rituximab, a CD20 B cells depleting agent (Fluge Ø. et al. 2011), (Fluge Ø. et al. 20115), and to immunoadsorption (Scheibenbogen C. et al 2018). Sera response to muscarinic cholinergic receptors is confirmed in two studies but both of them used an immune assay with proteins coated on a plate. This kind of test does not allow to identify the exact autoepitope on the receptor and – even more importantly – it is subjected to false positive results because it exposes to sera surfaces of receptors that are hidden when they are in their physiological position (Ramanathan S et al 2016). Nevertheless, the amount of data provided in the study by Loebel et al. where reactivity of sera to 5 subtypes of muscarinic cholinergic receptors have been measured simultaneously, has – in our opinion – the potential to unveil the exact autoepitope(s). Thus, we performed a bioinformatical analysis on experimental data from this study in order to extract hidden information. We used a software for the in silico study of B cell epitope cross-reactivity (Maccallini P. et al. 2018) and a software for amino acid protrusion index calculation (Ponomarenko J. et al., 2008).  Our prediction is that patients sera mainly react to three epitopes that belong to the second and third extracellular loop of M3 and M4 ChR, but also to a hidden epitope of the same two receptors, leading to possible false positive results of this test. We have also found that the reactivity to beta 2 adrenergic receptor (ß2 AdR) found in the study by Loebel et al. is not due to the same antibody that reacts to muscarinic cholinergic receptors.


Search for cross-reactive epitopes. Cross-reactivity between muscarinic cholinergic receptors M4 and M3, and between M4 and M1 has been studied in silico using EPITOPE, a software already described (Maccallini P. et al. 2018). Briefly, EPITOPE searches for cross-reactive epitopes shared between two proteins (let’s say protein A and protein B) by comparing each possible 7-mer peptide of A with each possible 7-mer peptide of B. The comparison is made using the algorithm by Needleman and Wunsch (Needleman SB. and Wunsch CD. 1970)  with a gap model a + b·x, where a is the opening gap penalty, b is the extending one, and x is the extension of the gap. A penalty for gaps at the end of the alignment was also assumed. The choice for gap penalties and substitution matrix were done according to the theory already developed for peptide alignments (Altschul SF. 1991), (Karlin S. and Altschul SF. 1990). Available experimental data on cross-reactivity between γ enolase and α enolase (McAleese SM. et al. 1988)  have been used for EPITOPE calibration: a score >60 was considered the cut-off for cross-reactivity, a score below 50 indicates non-cross-reactive epitopes; a score between 50 and 60 defines a borderline result. A simpler version of EPITOPE has been used for single local alignments. The main program used for M4-M3 comparison, its subroutine NeWalign and the substitution matrix employed are available for download. Primary structures used in this work have been downloaded from UniProt and are the following ones: M1 ChR (P11229), M3 ChR (P20309), M4 ChR (P08173), B2 AdR (P07550).

Surface exposure. In order to select only those 7-mer peptides that are on the surface of proteins, we have considered their mean protrusion indexes. A protrusion index of at least 0.5 has been considered the cut-off for surface exposure. Protrusion indexes of single amino acids have been calculated with ElliPro. A protrusion index of 0.5 means that the amino acid is outside the ellipsoid of inertia which includes 50% of the centers of mass of all the amino acids of the protein (Ponomarenko J. et al., 2008). For M4 ChR we have used the crystal structure 5DSG (Thal DM. et al. 2016). The 3D structure of human M3 ChR has not been experimentally determined yet, so we have used a theoretical model built using murine M3 ChR (PDB ID: 4DAJA) as a template, provided by ModBase.

M ChR plot
Figure 1. The position of the first amino acid of each possible 7-mer peptide of M4 ChR is reported on the abscissa, the score for the comparison of each of these peptides with M1 ChR (blue line) and M3 ChR (orange line) is reported on the ordinate. N terminus, extracellular loop 1, 2 and 3 are also indicated. Scores above the yellow line indicate cross-reactivity, scores below the blue line indicate a lack of cross-reactivity.

Selection criteria. Our purpose is to predict to what epitopes of M3 and M4 ChRs sera from ME/CFS patients react. So we search for M4 ChRs 7-mer peptides that are cross-reactive to M3 ChR, but non-cross-reactive to M1 ChR. Moreover, they have to present surface exposure both on M4 and on M3 ChR (otherwise antibodies can’t reach them). So, selection criteria for M4 ChR epitopes are as follows:

  1. they have to be cross-reactive to M3 ChR;
  2. they have to be non-cross reactive to M1 ChR or borderline;
  3. they have to present a mean protrusion index ≥0.5;
  4. M3 ChR peptides to which thy cross-react have to present a mean protrusion index ≥0.5.

We will refer to strict criteria when we assume only non-cross-reactivity in 2, while weak selection criteria are fulfilled when M4 ChR epitopes have borderline reactivity to M3 Chr peptides.

M4 vs M1, M3
Figure 2. Distribution of the scores from the comparison of M4 ChR with M1 ChR (left) and with M3 ChR (right). M3 ChR presents a slightly higher mean score.


The search for 7-mer peptides of M4 ChR that are cross-reactive to M3 ChR found 108 sequences. We then studied cross-reactivity to M1 ChR for each of these peptides and we found that 11 of them are non-cross-reactive and that other 9  peptides have borderline reactivity. None of these 20 peptides presented a cross-reactivity to B2 AdR (Table 1S, column 1). Scores between peptides of M4 ChR and the other two muscarinic cholinergic receptors are plotted in Figure 1. The distribution of scores from the comparison of M3 ChR with M1 ChR and with M3 ChR are reported in Figure 2. For the M4 ChR 20 epitopes mentioned above, we calculated the mean protrusion indexes and we did the same calculation for their cross-reactive peptides on M3 ChR. We also indicated their position with respect to the plasma membrane. All these data are collected in Table 2S. Once we apply selection criteria on these 20 peptides, we obtain 9 epitopes (Table 1). Of these selected epitopes, one belongs to a transmembrane helix: peptide 186-192 of M4 ChR, which cross-reacts to peptide 231-237 of M3 ChR. Peptide 418-431 of M4 ChR is partially immersed in the plasmatic membrane, even though its cross-reactive peptide of M3 ChR is entirely exposed to the extracellular space, and the same applies to the other two epitopes found (figure 1). Peptide 175-181 of M4 ChR cross-reacts to peptide 211-217 of M3 ChR; peptide 186-192 of M4 Chr cross-reacts to peptide 222-228 of M3 ChR; peptide 418-431 of M4 Chr cross-reacts to peptide 513-522 of M3 ChR. Sequences that fulfill selection criteria and their respective inverted sequences are collected in  Table 2.

Table 1
Table 1. This is the collection of M4 Chr 7-mer peptides that are cross-reactive to M3 ChR; are not cross-reactive or borderline with M1 ChR; have a mean protrusion index higher than 0.5; are cross-reactive with epitopes of M3 ChR with a protrusion index higher than 0.5.


B cells autoimmunity to muscarinic cholinergic receptors in ME/CFS has been reported in two studies (Tanaka S et al. 2003), (Loebel M et al. 2016) and this finding has been recently confirmed by two other independent groups who have not published yet (R). The two studies mentioned used full-length proteins coated on a plate in order to perform the immune assay. With this kind of technique we may have both false positives (due to the fact that sera react with peptides that are not in the extracellular domain) and false negatives (due to protein denaturation, which leads to the formation of epitopes that would not be present if the protein were correctly folded) as has been reported in the case of anti-MOG antibodies (Ramanathan S et al 2016). A way to solve the possible inaccuracy of these data would thus be to measure sera reactivity with a cell-based assay (CBA) which is a test where receptors are expressed by eukaryotic cells and thus they are held in their physiological position.

Figure 1. Peptides of table 1 that belong to the extracellular domain of M3 and M4 ChR are here highlighted directly on the 3D structures of their respective receptors.

Nevertheless, we can still try to extract hidden information from experimental data and predict the position of the epitope(s) ME/CFS patients sera react to. Knowing that sera from patients react to M4, M3 ChRs and that there is a low correlation between reactivity to M4 ChR and reactivity to M1 ChR (Loebel M et al. 2016) we selected 7-mer peptides of M4 ChR that cross-react (in silico) to M3 ChR but not to M1 ChR (Table 2S). We then selected, among them, only those peptides that have surface exposure on their respective proteins (Table 1). The result is that patient sera react to extracellular loops 2 and 3 of both M3 and M4 ChRs (Figure 1), but also to a hidden antigen, a peptide of transmembrane helix 5 of both M3 and M4 ChR.

Our results are of interest because extracellular loops 2 and 3 of M3 ChR are known autoepitopes in Sjögren’s syndrome (Ss) (Deng C. et al. 2915). Moreover, sera from patients with orthostatic hypotension (OH) react to extracellular loop 2 of M3 ChR, where they show an agonistic effect, thus acting as vasodilators (Li H. et al. 2012). OH, a form of orthostatic intolerance has been reported in ME/CFS patients (Bou-Holaigah et al. 1995) while fatigue similar to post-exertional malaise have been described in Ss (Segal B. et al. 2008). A pathogenic role of these antibodies in fatigue for both ME/CFS and Sjögren syndrome could perhaps be due to their vasodilatory effect.

Our analysis unveiled reactivity to a hidden autoepitope, which belongs to transmembrane helix 5 of M3 and of M4 ChR. This epitope is buried inside the plasma membrane when these two receptors are in their physiological position, so this reactivity can’t contribute to the pathogenesis of ME/CFS.

None of the 7-mer peptides of M4 ChR that cross-react to M3 ChR and at the same time don’t cross-react to M1 ChR presents in silico reactivity to B2 AdR. This means that in those patients whose sera present reactivity to both M4-M3 ChR and B2 AdR, there are two distinct autoantibodies. This prediction of our model is consistent with the low correlation found by Loebel and colleagues between anti-M4 ChR and anti-B2 AdR antibodies (Loebel M et al. 2016).

Most B cells epitopes on non-denaturated proteins (i.e. proteins that conserve their tertiary structure) are believed to be conformational (Morris, 2007), so a significant limitation of this study is due to the fact that our analysis considers only linear epitopes. Nevertheless, the main limitation of this study remains by far my encephalopathy.


This analysis of previously published data suggests a role for the second and the third extracellular loop of M4 and M3 ChR as autoantigens in ME/CFS. It also predicts the presence of a hidden autoantigen and thus a risk of false-positive results with standard ELISA.  The eight peptides found by this analysis and their inverse sequences (Table 2) should be employed as query sequences for the search for possible triggering pathogens and for other autoantigens. These predictions should be tested using both cell-based assays and ELISA tests with these 8 peptides coated on the plate.

Table 2.PNG
Table 2. Peptides belonging to M4 and M4 ChR that fulfill our selection criteria are collected on the left. On the right, their reverse sequences. These 16 peptides can be used in BLAST in order to serach for triggering pathogens and for other possible autoepitopes.


Supplementary material. The following two tables represent the first two steps of the analysis presented in this paper. M4 ChR 7-mer peptides that are cross-reactive to M3 ChR are collected in Table 1S, while those of them that are non-cross-reactive (or borderline) to M1 ChR are collected in Table 2S.

Table 1S. Peptides of M4 ChR that are cross-reactive to M3 ChR are collected in the first column. In the second column are collected the scores of these 7-mer peptides obtained from the comparison with M1 ChR. For those that obtained a score below 60, the score from the comparison with B2 AdR is reported in column 5. Positions of peptides of interest that belong to M3ChR and B2 AdR are collected in columns 4 and 6 respectively.
Table 2S.PNG
Table 2S. These 20 peptides are those M4 ChR peptides that cross-react to M3 ChR and at the same time are non-cross-reactive or borderline when compared to M1 ChR. Reactivity to B2 AdR is also indicated, as well as positions with respect to the plasma membrane and mean protrusion indexes. On the left are indicated those peptides of M4 ChR that pass the selection according to our criteria. Both a strict selection and a selection with more weak criteria are reported.







Is Carboxypeptidase N deficiency a contributing factor in ME/CFS and POTS?


We present an attempt at exome analysis in two ME/CFS patients. Pt. 1 presents a mild form of carboxypeptidase N (CPN1) deficiency (a missense in exon 3) while Pt. 2 revealed two rare intronic variants in the same gene. CPN1 is an enzyme that inactivates kinins and complement proteins split products (such as C4a, a known anaphylatoxin). Therefore, CPN1 deficiency could explain C4a increase after exercise and mast cell abnormalities previously reported in ME/CFS. It could also explain the high prevalence of POTS in ME/CFS since kinins are vasodilators.


Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a debilitating disease characterized by cognitive deficits, fatigue, orthostatic intolerance with symptoms exacerbated after exertion (IOM, 2015). This disease has no known cause but several abnormalities have been observed in energy metabolism (Tomas C. and Newton J. 2018), immune system and gut flora (Blomberg J. et al. 2018), brain (Zeineh MM. et al. 2014). In this population of patients, several abnormalities have been found to be triggered by exercise, such as abnormal aerobic performance (Snell C. et al. 2013), enhanced gene expression of specific receptors (White AT. et al. 2012), abnormal gut flora translocation (Shukla SK et al. 2015) and failure in blood clearance of complement protein 4 split product A (C4a) (Sorensen B et al. 2003). An increase in C4a is part of the human physiologic response to physical exercise, but these levels return to baseline within 30 minutes to 2 hours (Dufaux B et al. 1991) while in ME/CFS there is a peak in serum C4a six hours after exertion. A possible explanation for slow C4a inactivation could be a problem in carboxypeptidase N (CPN1), an enzyme involved in the inactivation of C3a, C4a, C5a. CPN1 is required for kinins inactivation too, such as bradykinin, kalladin (Hugli T. 1978), (Plummer TH et Hurwitz MY 1978), that are vasodilators. We report on the case of a ME/CFS patient (Pt. 1) with a missense variant in CPN1 gene that is linked to reduced function of the enzyme and of another ME/CFS patient (Pt. 2) with rare variants in introns 1 and 6 of the same gene with uncertain significance (table 1, figure 1).

Table 1.PNG
Table 1. This is a collection of the variants within gene CPN1 found in Pt. 1 and 2. The verdict is the one given by VarSome. A damaging SNP present in exon 3 of CPN1 from Pt. 1 and two rare SNPs found in intron 1 and intron 6 of CPN1 from Pt. 2 are highlighted in orange.
Figure 1. SNPs and InDels along gene CPN1 found in Pt. 1 (first row) and Pt. 2 (second row) as reported by IGV.

Materials and Methods

Whole exome sequencing (WES) has been performed on cells from the saliva of two ME/CFS patients, with an average 100X coverage (Dante Labs). The first search for pathogenic variants and insertions/deletions was performed with the software EVE, provided by A further refinement of the search was conducted by manual insertion of these SNPs in VarSome. The search for possible unknown pathogenic variants within the gene for CPN1 has been performed using Integrative Genome Viewer (IGV), an opensource tool for genetic data analysis.


Results from the analysis of the two exomes performed with EVE and refined with VarSome are collected in table 2 (Pt. 1) and table 3 (Pt. 2).

Pt. 2 is carrier of a mitochondrial disease (table 3, first line): a missense in gene for medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase (MCAD) which leads to mild functional impairment of the enzyme involved in the oxidation of fatty acids (44% residual activity) (Koster KL. et al. 2014).

Pt. 2 is also homozygous for a variation in gene arylsulfatase A (ARSA) that is linked to a residual activity of only 10% of normal (Gomez-Ospina N. 2010). Arylsulfatase A deficiency (also known as metachromatic leukodystrophy or MLD) is a disorder of impaired breakdown of sulfatides (cerebroside sulfate or 3-0-sulfo-galactosylceramide), sulfate-containing lipids that occur throughout the body and are found in greatest abundance in nervous tissue, kidneys, and testes. Sulfatides are critical constituents in the nervous system, where they comprise approximately 5% of the myelin lipids. Sulfatide accumulation in the nervous system eventually leads to myelin breakdown (leukodystrophy) and a progressive neurologic disorder (Von Figura et al 2001). Nevertheless, this genotype does not cause MLD, and this benign condition of reduced ARSA activity is called ARSA pseudodeficiency. There are about 4 homozygotes in 1000 persons among non-Finnish Europeans (VarSome)

Pt. 1 is a carrier of a missense in gene CPN1 (table 2, first line) which leads to a loss of more than 60% of activity, according to a study on a single patient (Mathews KP. et al. 1980), (Cao H. et Hegele RA. 2003). The study of gene CPN1 in both patients (using IGV) has led to the identification of two rare variants (frequency less than 0.002) in intron 1 and 6 of one allele from Pt. 2 (table 1, figure 1). In MCAD no other damaging variations have been identified in these two patients by direct inspection with IGV (data not shown).


exome 1
Table 2. Possible pathogenic variants found in exome from Pt. 1.
exome 2.PNG
Table 3. Possible pathogenic variants found in exome from Pt. 2.


Whole exome sequencing (WES) is a technique that aims at the sequencing of the fraction of our genome that encodes for proteins: about 30 million base pairs (1% of the all the human DNA) divided into about 20 thousand genes (Ng SB et al. 2009). It has become increasingly clear that the use of WES can positively improve the rate of diagnosis and decrease the time needed for a definitive diagnosis in patients with rare genetic diseases (Sawyer SL et al. 2016). WES also positively impacts the ability to discover new pathogenic variants in known disease genes (Polychronakos C. et Seng KC. 2011) and the discovery of completely new disease genes (Boycott KM 2013). ME/CFS seems to have a genetic component: a US study found clear evidence of familial clustering and elevated risk for the disease among relatives of ME/CFS cases (Albright F et al. 2011) and several SNPs in various genes have been reported as more prevalent in ME/CFS patients versus healthy controls (Wang T et al. 2017). And yet, no studies that analyzed whole exomes of ME/CFS patients have been published, to my knowledge.

In this study, we searched for known genetic diseases in the exomes of two ME/CFS patients who fit the IOM criteria for SEID (IOM, 2015), with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) identified by positive tilt table test. We detected a missense variant in CPN1 (rs61751507) in Pt. 1 (heterozygosis) that has been associated to a loss of activity of the enzyme of at least 60% in a previous study (Mathews KP. et al. 1980), (Cao H. et Hegele RA. 2003). We then found that, although Pt. 2 was not a carrier of this SNP, she had two rare SNPs in intron 1 (rs188667294) and 6 (rs113386068) of gene CPN1 (both present in less than 1/500 alleles, table 1, figure 1). These intronic variations have not been studied, to our knowledge, so their pathogenicity can’t be excluded at present. Variations in introns can be damaging just as missense and nonsense mutations in exons; suffice to say that the main known pathogenic SNP of gene CPN1 is a substitution in intron 1 (Cao H. et Hegele RA. 2003).

Carboxypeptidase N (CPN1) is an enzyme involved in the inactivation of C3a, C4a, C5a, and of kinins (bradykinin, kalladin) (Hugli T. 1978), (Plummer TH et Hurwitz MY 1978). In ME/CFS the physiologic increase in blood of C4a (the split product of the complement protein C4) after exercise is significantly more pronounced than in healthy controls as if there was a defect in C4a inactivation (Sorensen B et al. 2003). Such a defect could very well be a loss of function in CPN1, as found in Pt 1. Moreover, CPN1 is involved in inactivation of bradykinin, which is known to induce vasodilatation (Siltari A. et al. 2016), therefore CPN1 deficiency could play a role in POTS and in orthostatic intolerance in general. Both patients have a tilt table test positive for POTS. C4a has been recently considered to play a causal role in the cognitive deficit of schizophrenia, because of its role in synapsis pruning (Sekar, A et al, 2016); therefore a failure in its inactivation could be implicated in the incapacitating cognitive defects lamented by ME/CFS patients.

Only two patients with CPN1 deficiency have been reported so far in medical literature (Mathews KP. et al. 1980), (Willemse Jl et al. 2008), and the enzymatic defect has been associated to angioedema that most often involved the face and tongue, urticaria, and hay fever and asthma precipitated by exercise. This clinical presentation could be due, at least in part, to mast cell activation: in fact, C4a is a known anaphylatoxin that induces mast cells degranulation and release of histamine (Erdei A. et al. 2004). That said, we can observe that even if the clinical presentation of the only two known cases of CPN1 deficiency doesn’t fit the clinical picture of ME/CFS, mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) has some commonalities with ME/CFS (Theoharides, TC et al. 2005), and mast cell abnormalities have been reported among ME/CFS patients (Nguyen T. et al. 2016). So we can’t exclude that activation of mast cells by a failure in C4a inactivation may lead to ME/CFS symptoms. The role of exercise as a trigger for symptoms in CPN1 deficiency is also highly suggestive because this is a pathognomonic feature of ME/CFS.


CPN1 deficiency is present (even if in a mild form) in Pt. 1, while Pt. 2 presents two rare intronic variants whose pathogenic role can’t be excluded. CPN1 deficiency could explain the abnormal increase of C4a after exercise and might be a contributing factor to post-exertional malaise and cognitive symptoms in ME/CFS. A search for pathogenetic SNPs in gene CPN1 among ME/CFS patients would clarify the role (if any) of this gene.


Acknowledgments. I would like to thank Chiara Scarpellini for her careful collection of annotations for each of the 2 hundred or so variants found by EVE within the exomes of Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 (table 2 and table 3).

Mark Davis and the search for the universal immune test

Mark Davis and the search for the universal immune test

A traslation of this blg post to Spanish can be downloaded here. I would like to thank Humbert.Cat for the translation.

1. Introduction

These are some notes about the talk that Mark Davis gave during the Community Symposium held in August at Stanford (video). I will introduce some basic notions about T cell receptors (TCR) in paragraphs 2, 3, 4, and 5. Paragraphs 6 is a description of an innovative technology developed by Mark Davis and his colleagues, based on information gathered from the video itself and three research papers published by Davis and others in the last 4 years. This background should be hopefully enough to allow a good understanding of the exciting pilot data presented by Mark Davis on T cell activity in ME/CFS (paragraph 7), and in chronic Lyme (paragraph 8), and to realize why this technology promises to be some sort of universal test for any kind of infectious and autoimmune diseases, known or unknown.

2. T cells

T cells are a type of leukocytes (also known as white blood cells), the cellular component of our immune system. Most of our circulating T cells are represented by T helper cells (Th cells) and cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL). While the function of Th cells is to regulate the activity of other leukocytes through the production of a wide range of chemicals (cytokines), CTLs are directly involved in the killing of host cells infected by pathogens. T cells belong to the adaptive arm of the immune system, along with B cells (the factories of antibodies), and as such, they are meant to provide a defence tailored to specific pathogens: our immune system can provide not only antibodies specific for a given pathogen but also specific T cells (both Th cells and CTLs). The innate arm of the immune system (which includes natural killer cells, macrophages, dendritic cells, mast cells…) on the other hand can provide only a one-fits-all type of defense, which represents the first line of immune response, during an infection.

3. T cell receptor

T cells search for their specific pathogens thanks to a molecule expressed on their surface, called T cell receptor (TCR). In figure 1 you can see a schematic representation of the TCR and of the mechanism by which T cells recognize their targets. Antigens (proteins) from pathogens are presented to T cells by other cells of our body: they are displayed on molecules called major histocompatibility complex (MHC), expressed on the outer membrane; if the antigen fits the TCR of a specific T cell, then this T cell is activated and proliferates (clonal expansion). The two chains (α and β) are assembled using the transcription of gene segments with several copies each: in other words, TCRs are assembled with peptides chosen randomly within a set of several possible choices. This leads to a repertoire of 10^15 possible different TCRs (Mason DA 1998). Each T cell displays only one type of TCR.

Figure 1. Upper half. Th cells and CTLs share the same TCR: in both cases this molecule is the assembly of two peptides (chain α and chain β), but while the TCR of Th cells (on the right) is expressed next to the molecule CD4 (which binds to class II MHC), the TCR of CTL is associated with the molecule CD8 (on the left), which is specific for MHC I. Black bars represent four chains (a complex called CD3) that are involved in the signaling of the TCR with the nucleus of the cell (by Paolo Maccallini). Lower half. A beautiful structural representation of the TCR, bound to the peptide-MHC complex (pMHC), from (Gonzàlez PA et al. 2013). In green the peptide, in blue the β chain, in dark green the α chain. CDRs (complementarity determining regions, orange) are composed of those residues of the α and β chains that directly bind the pMHC.

4. T helper cells

Th cells can recognize only antigens presented by class II MHC: this class of MHC is expressed on the outer membrane of some leukocytes, mainly dendritic cells, B cells, and macrophages (referred to as antigen presenting cells, APCs). MHC II engages the TCR of Th cells thanks to peptide CD4 (expressed exclusively by Th cells). The antigen presented by MHC II is a peptide with a length of 13-17 amino acids (Rudensky, et al., 1991) (figure 2).

Figure 2. The TCR expressed by a Th cell binds an epitope presented by a class II MHC expressed on the plasma membrane of an APC. Chains α and β of MHC II are also represented (by Paolo Maccallini).

5. Cytotoxic T lymphocytes

TCRs expressed by CTLs can bind only antigens displayed by class I MHC, which can be found on the outer membrane of any cell of our body. CD8 is the molecule that makes the TCR expressed by CTLs specific for MHC I. While antigens presented by APCs belongs to pathogens that have been collected on the battlefield of the infection, peptides displayed by class I MHC of a specific cell belong to pathogens that have entered the cell itself, therefore they are the proof of an ongoing intracellular infection (figure 3). When a CTL recognizes an antigen that fits its TCR, then the CTL induces apoptosis (programmed death) of the cell that displays it. Antigens presented by MHC I are peptides in the range of 8 to 10 amino acids (Stern, et al., 1994).

Figure 3. An infected cell displays a viral antigen on its MHC I. The TCR of a CTL binds this peptide and send a signal to the nucleus of the CTL itself, that responds with the induction of apoptosis (releasing granzymes, for instance) of the infected cell (by Paolo Maccallini).  

6. The universal immune testing

In his talk, Mark Davis presents an overview of some basic concepts about the immune system, before introducing his exciting new data about ME/CFS and post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS, also known as chronic Lyme). But he also describes a few details of a complex new assay that is theoretically able to read all the information packed in the repertoire of TCRs present – in a given moment – in the blood of a human being. As such, this test – that I have named the universal immune testing – seems to have the potential to determine if a given patient has an ongoing infection (and the exact pathogen) or an autoimmune disease (and the exact autoantigen, i.e. the tissue attached by the immune system). To my understanding, this assay requires three steps, described in the following sections.

6.1. First step: TCR sequencing

As said in paragraph 3, when T cells encounter their specific peptide presented by MHC, they proliferate so that in blood of patients with an ongoing infection (or with a reaction against self, i.e. autoimmunity) we can find several copies of T cells expressing the same TCR: while in healthy controls about 10% of total CD8 T cells is represented by clones of a few different T cells (figure 4, first line), in early Lyme disease – an example of active infection – and in multiple sclerosis (MS) – an example of autoimmune disease – we have a massive clonation of a few lines of CTLs (figure 5, second and third line, respectively). The first step of the universal immune testing is represented by the identification of the exact sequence of TCRs expressed by T cells in blood, as reported in (Han A et al. 2014) where it is described how to sequence genes for the α and the β chain of a given T cell. This approach allows to build graphs of the kind in figure 4, and therefore to determine whether the patient has an abnormal ongoing T cell activity or not. If a clonal expansion is found, then we can speculate that either an active infection is present or some sort of autoimmune condition.

Clonal expansion CD8.png
Figure 4. Each circle represents a patient. In the first line, we have four healthy controls, with no clonal expansion of CD8 T cells (the first one, left) or with only a low-level clonal expansion (slices in blue, white, and grey). In the second line, we have four patients with active Lyme disease (early Lyme) and all of them present a massive expansion of only three different T cells (slices in red, blue and orange). In the third line, we have four MS patient with most of their CD8 T cells represented by clones of a bunch of T cells. From the talk by Mark Davis.

6.2. Second step: TCR clustering

Mark Davis and his group have been able to code a software that allows to identify TCRs that share the same antigen, either within an individual or across different donors. This algorithm has been termed GLIPH (grouping of lymphocyte interaction by paratope hotspots) and has been found capable – for instance – to cluster T CD4 cell receptors from 22 subjects with latent M. tuberculosis infection into 16 distinct groups, each of which comprises TCRs from at least 3 different donors (Glanville J et al. 2017). Five of these groups are reported in figure 5. The idea here is that TCRs that belong to the same cluster, react to the same peptide-MHC complex (pMHC).

Figure 5. Five group of TCRs from 22 different donors with latent tuberculosis, clustered by GLIPH. The first column on the left has TCRs IDs, the second one reports donors IDs. Complementarity determining regions (CDR) for the β and the α chains are reported in the third and fifth column, respectively. From (Glanville J et al. 2017).

6.3. Third step: quest for the epitope(s)

As we have seen, this new technology allows to recognize if T cell clonal expansion is an issue in a given patient, by sequencing TCRs from his peripheral blood. It also allows to cluster TCRs either within an individual or across different patients. The next step is to identify what kind of antigen(s) each cluster of TCRs reacts to. In fact, if we could recognize these antigens in a group of patients with similar symptoms, with T cell clonal expansion and similar TCRs, we would be able to understand whether their immune system is fighting a pathogen (and to identify the pathogen) or if it is attacking host tissues and, if that was the case, to identify what tissue. As mentioned, the number of possible TCR gene rearrangement is supposed to be about 10^15, but the number of possible Th cell epitope is about 20^15 which is more than 10^19. This implies that TCRs have to be cross-reactive to some extent, in order to recognize all possible peptides presented by MHCs (Mason DA 1998). The exact extent of this cross-reactivity and the mechanism by which it is obtained has been elucidated by Mark Davis and his colleagues in a recent paper (Birnbaum ME et al. 2014) that gives us the third step of the universal immune testing. The aim of this phase is to take a given TCR and to find the repertoire of his specific antigens (as said, one TCR reacts to several antigens). In order to understand how this is possible let’s consider one of the experiments described in the paper mentioned above. The researchers considered two well-defined TCRs (named Ob.1A12 and Ob.2F3), cloned from a patient with MS and known to recognize peptide 85-99 (figure 6) of myelin basic protein (MBP) presented by HLA-DR15. They then prepared a set of yeast cells expressing HLA-DR15 molecules, each presenting a different peptide of 14 amino acids, with fixed residues only at position 1 and 4, where the peptide is anchored to MHC (figure 6, left). When copies of Ob.1A12 are added to this culture of yeast cells expressing pMHC complexes, they bind only some of them, and as you can see in the right half of figure 6, for each position of the epitopes bound by Ob.1A12, there is an amino acid that is more likely: for instance, the typical epitope of Ob.1A12 preferentially has alanine (A) at position -4, histidine (H) at position -3, arginine (R) at position -2, and so forth. As you can see, histidine (H) at position 2 and phenylalanine (F) at position 3 are obligate amino acids for a Ob.1A12 epitope.

Figure 6. On the left: peptide 85-99 of myelin basic protein (first row) is known to be an epitope for Ob.1A12. At position 1 and 4 it has two residues that allow its binding to the MHC molecule. At position -2, -1, 2, 3, and 5 we find those residues that bind the TCR. The second row represents the generic epitope of the peptide library used to identify the degree of crossreactivity between all the possible Ob.1A12 specific epitopes. On the right: the likelihood of amino acids for each position of Ob.1A12 specific epitopes is represented by shades of violet. As you can see, histidine (H) at position 2 and phenylalanine (F) at position 3 are obligate amino acids for a Ob.1A12 epitope. From (Birnbaum ME et al. 2014).

The table on the right side of figure 6 is, in fact, a substitution matrix with dimension 14×20, a tool that can be used to scan the peptide database in order to find, among all the known peptides expressed by living creatures, all the possible Ob.1A12 specific epitopes. Substitution matrices are commonly used for the so-called peptide alignment, a technique that aims at the identification of similarities between peptides. These matrices are based on evolutionary considerations (Dayhoff, et al., 1978) or on the study of conserved regions in proteins (Henikoff, et al., 1992). But the search for specific epitopes of a given TCR requires (as we have seen here for Ob.1A12) a substitution matrix built ad hoc for that TCR: each TCR requires its own substitution matrix that is obtained adding clones of that TCR on a culture of yeast cells presenting a huge peptide library on their MHCs, and analyzing data from this experiment. So, quite a complex process! In the case of Ob.1A12, this process led to 2330 peptides (including MBP), while the Ob.2F3 specific substitution matrix found 4824 epitopes within the whole peptide database. These peptides included both non-human proteins (bacterial, viral…) and human peptides. For 33 of them (26 non human and 7 human proteins), this group of researchers performed a test in order to directly verify the prediction: 25/26 of environmental peptides and 6/7 of the human peptides induced proliferation of T cells expressing Ob.1A12 and/or Ob.2F3, and this is a huge proof of the validity of this analysis! These 33 peptides are reported in figure 7. This is the last step of the universal immune testing, the one that from the TCR leads to the epitopes. As you have seen, a huge set of different peptides from different sources is linked to each single TCR, in other words, crossreactivity is an intrinsic property of TCR. This also means that lymphocyte transformation tests (LTTs), widely used in Europe for the detection of infections like Borrelia burgdorferi and others, bear a high risk of false-positive results and require a process of experimental and theoretical validation, that is currently lacking (see also this post on this issue).

Crossreactive epitopes.JPG
Figure 7. A set of 33 peptides (both human and environmental) predicted to be specific epitopes for both Ob.1A12 and Ob.2F3. From (Birnbaum ME et al. 2014).

We are now ready to fully appreciate the pilot data that Mark Davis presented at the Symposium on CD8 T cell clonal expansion in ME/CFS and in chronic Lyme.

7. We have a hit!

Mark Davis, along with Jacob Glanville and José Montoya, has sequenced TCRs from the peripheral blood of 50 ME/CFS patients and 49 controls (first step of the universal immune testing, remember?), then they have clustered them using the GLIPH algorithm (second step). They have found 28 clusters with more than 2500 similar sequences each, where each cluster collects multiple sequences from the same individual as well as (which is perhaps more important) sequences from different patients (figure 8). The cluster that I have circled in red, for instance, is a collection of more than 3000 similar TCRs. The presence of this wide clusters in ME/CFS patients, compared to healthy controls, represents an indirect proof of a specific T cell response to some common trigger in this group of patients, which might be a pathogen or a tissue of the body (or both).

Clustered TCR
Figure 8. In ME/CFS, TCRs sequences from 50 patients form 28 clusters with more than 2500 similar sequences, and this is clearly not the case in healthy controls. This point to some specific immune response to a pathogen or to a human tissue (or both). This slide is from the talk by Mark Davis.

Among these 50 ME/CFS patients, Davis and colleagues selected 6 patients with similar HLA genes (figure 9, left), 5 females among them, and studied their TCRs deeper. In the right half of figure 9, you can see for each patient the degree of CTL clonal expansion. Remember that in healthy controls only about 10% of CTLs is composed by clones of a few cells (figure 4, first raw), while here we see that about 50% of all CTLs is composed by clones. So, a “marked clonal expansion” of CD8 T cells, as Davis said.

ME subjects CD8
Figure 9. On the left: 6 MECFS patients with similar HLA genes have been selected. Patient ID is reported in the first column on the left, the second column indicates the age of each patient, the third indicates the gender, the fourth column is about exposure to cytomegalovirus, the third one is on MHC I genes. On the right: analysis of clonal expansion of CD8 T cells for each of the six patients. There is a marked clonal expansion (about 50%) compared to healthy controls (about 10%).

Sequences of α and β chains of TCRs from three of the six patients (patients L4-02, L4-10, and L3-20) are reported in figure 10 (I have verified that in fact these are sequences of α and β chains of human TCRs using them as query sequences in standard protein BLAST).

TCR epitope.png
Figure 10. Beta chains (first column) and respective α chains (fifth column) from 3 ME/CFS patients (L4-02, L4-10, and L3-20, last column).

So, we have seen so far the first two steps of the universal immune testing in ME. What about the third step? In his talk, Mark Davis didn’t present any particular epitope, he just showed a slide with what likely is the selection of the epitopes from the peptide library (see paragraph 6.3) by one of the TCRs reported in figure 10. This selection is reported in figure 11, but from that picture, it is not possible to gather any information about the identity of these epitopes. As you probably remember from paragraph 6.3, the analysis of the peptides selected by a TCR among the peptide library allows the identification of a substitution matrix that can be used to select all the possible epitopes of that specific TCR, from the peptide database. This last crucial step has to be performed yet, or it has been already performed, but Davis has not communicated the preliminary results during his talk. Recently new resources have been made available by Open Medicine Foundation, for this promising research to be further pursued, among other projects (R). The aim here, as already said, is to find the antigen that triggers this T cell response. As Mark Davis said, it might be an antigen from a specific pathogen (perhaps a common pathogen that comes and goes) that elicits an abnormal immune response which ends targeting some host tissue (microglia, for instance), thus leading to the kind of immune activation that has been recently reported by Mark Davis himself and others in ME/CFS (Montoya JG et al. 2017). The idea of a common pathogen triggering a pathologic immune response is not new in medicine, and rheumatic fever (RF) is an example of such a disease: RF is an autoimmune disease that attacks heart, brain and joints and is generally triggered by a streptococcal throat infection (Marijon E et al. 2012). The other possible avenue is, of course, that of an ongoing infection of some kind, that has yet to be detected. As said (see par. 6.1), CD8 T cell clonal expansion is present in both acute infections (like early Lyme disease) and autoimmune diseases (like MS) (figure 4), so we have to wait for the antigen identification if we want to understand if the CTLs activity is against a pathogen and/or against a host tissue.

Figure 11. In this picture, we can see the selection, through several rounds, of a bunch of peptides by a particular TCR from a ME patient. The selection takes place among a huge collection of peptides presented by HLA-A2 (MHC I) expressed by yeast cells. At each round the number of possible peptides is smaller.

8. Chronic Lyme does exist

It has probably been overlooked that in his talk, Mark Davis reported also very interesting data on post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS, also known as chronic Lyme disease). In particular, he found a marked clonal expansion in CD8 T cells of 4 PTLDS patients (about 40% of total CTLs) as reported in figure 12: consider that in this case, blue slices represent unique T cells, while all the other slices represent clones! All that has been said about CD8 clonal expansion in ME/CFS does apply in this case too: it might be the proof of an ongoing infection – perhaps the same B. burgdorferi, as suggested by several animal models (Embers ME et al. 2017), (Embers ME et al. 2012), (Hodzic E et al. 2008), (Yrjänäinen H et al. 2010) – or a coinfection (a virus?) or it could be the expression of an autoimmune reaction triggered by the initial infection. This has still to be discovered, running the complete universal immune testing, but what is already clear from figure 12 is that PTLDS is a real condition, with something really wrong going on within the immune response: chronic Lyme does exist.

Figure 12. CD8 T cells clonal expansion in four chronic Lyme patients: there is a marked clonal expansion that stands for T cell activity against a pathogen or against host tissue.

9. Conclusions

Mark Davis and other researchers have developed a complex assay that is able to sequence TCRs from patients, cluster them into groups of TCRs that react to the same antigens, and discover the antigens that triggered that particular T cell response. This assay is a kind of universal immune testing that is theoretically able to recognize if a person (or a group of patients) presents an immune response against a pathogen or against one of his own tissues (or both). This approach has already given pilot data on an ongoing CD8 T cell activity in ME/CFS patients and in chronic Lyme patients and will hopefully identify the trigger of this immune response in the near future. Whether ME/CFS is an ongoing infection, an autoimmune disease or both, the universal immune testing might be able to tell us. This new technology is for immunology, what whole genome sequencing is for genetics, or metabolomics is for molecular diseases: it doesn’t search for a particular pathogen or a particular autoimmune disease. No, it searches for all possible infections and immune disorders, even those that have yet to be discovered.

As mentioned, the Open Medicine Foundation is funding Mark Davis’ research, among other research projects. Please consider a donation to the Open Medicine Foundation: donate.

Il cavallo marino e l’energia

Il cavallo marino e l’energia

Le misure metaboliche in vitro dello studio norvegese  in cui fu evidenziato un possibile blocco al livello del piruvato deidrogenasi nei pazienti ME/CFS, sono state effettuate con il dispositivo Seahorse XFe96 della Agilent. Questo apparecchio (grande come una stampante da tavolo) permette di misurare in tempo reale – in vitro – il metabolismo energetico di cellule prelevate da pazienti (ad esempio linfociti). Come è spiegato nel video che segue, il tutto si riduce a due misure:

  1. una misura del consumo di ossigeno, che fornisce una stima del funzionamento mitocondriale;
  2. una misura della concentrazione di protoni, che fornisce una stima del funzionamento della glicolisi.

Mi risulta che l’Università degli Studi di Firenze sia in possesso di questo apparecchio (vedi qui).

Il Seahorse è attualmente impiegato nello studio di Avindra Nath (NIH) su 40 pazienti con ME/CFS post-infettiva (PI-ME/CFS). Come gruppo di controllo per questa ricerca, oltre a 20 persone sane, sono state selezionate anche 20 persone che hanno avuto la Lyme e sono completamente guarite.


L’algoritmo di Needleman-Wunsch

L’algoritmo di Needleman-Wunsch

Allineamento di proteine

Cercare similitudini fra sequenze di peptidi è estremamente utile per stabilire rapporti evolutivi fra proteine (e quindi fra gli esseri viventi che le sintetizzano), per progettare vaccini, per studiare fenomeni di autoimmunità e altro. In questo post presento un software che si occupa proprio del confronto fra due sequenze proteiche. La scrittura di questo programma mi ha tenuto compagnia durante molti mesi, segnandomi la rotta fra le costanti ricadute e riacutizzazioni della mia malattia, malattia che fin’ora non mi ha ancora abbandonato per un solo giorno. Mentre scrivevo questo e altri codici, che ne sono lo sviluppo, inventavo anche un modo per aspettare il domani.

Figura 1. Una sequenza di tre amminoacidi, con in evidenza il legame peptidico e l’angolo psi del legame fra il carbonio C-alpha e il C-beta di un amminoacido. Disegno di Paolo Maccallini.

Needleman e Wunsch

L’algoritmo di Needleman-Wunsch descrive un procedimento automatico che consente di calcolare il migliore allineamento possibile fra due sequenze di amminoacidi (Needleman SB, Wunsch CD, 1969). Questo metodo permette di svolgere in modo relativamente veloce e ingegnoso il confronto fra tutti gli allineamenti fra le due sequenze, considerando ogni possibile numero di lacune, in ogni possibile posizione. Il suo scopo è quello di scegliere fra questi allineamenti il migliore, ovvero quello che garantisce il ‘punteggio’ più alto, essendo tale punteggio calcolato utilizzando delle matrici quadrate di dimensione 20, dette ‘matrici di sostituzione’. Questo compito è non banale e comporta l’esame di un numero di allineamenti pari a

NeW 1.png

dove k e m sono le lunghezze dei due peptidi. Si tratta di numeri molto elevati, infatti posto ad esempio k=4 e m=6, si ottengono circa 215 allineamenti diversi. In genere però si ha a che fare con peptidi di centinaia di amminoacidi, il che comporta milioni di possibili allineamenti tra cui cercare il migliore. Ebbene, l’algoritmo di Needleman e Wunsch permette di effettuare questa analisi senza dover considerare direttamente ogni allineamento possibile. In figura 2 e 3 si ha una descrizione grafica di questo algoritmo.

Figura 2. L’algoritmo di Needleman-Wunsch, con l’indicazione delle variabili che ho usato nel mio codice per implementarlo. Disegno di Paolo Maccallini.
Figura 3. La matrice TBM (trace back matrix) per uno specifico allineamento. Disegno di Paolo Maccallini.

Il mio programma

Il mio software per l’allineamento globale fra due proteine si chiama NeW_6 ed è scritto in Octave. Il programma presenta la stessa funzionalità di due analoghi prodotti di largo impiego, che sono LALIGN dello Swiss Institute of Bioniformatics e EMBOSS Needle dell’Europen Bioinformatic Institute. In particolare il mio programma ha le seguenti caratteristiche:

  • permette all’utente di scegliere fra un set di comuni matrici di sostituzione;
  • ha un modello di lacuna del tipo a+b(x), dove a è la penalità della lacuna iniziale, b quella delle lacune di estensione e x è il numero di lacune;
  • prevede lacune alla fine delle sequenze.

Lo sviluppo del programma, nonché il codice, si trovano in questo PDF, dove è possibile seguire vari esempi applicativi e varie versioni del programma stesso, nonché dei test in cui ne confronto l’output con i programmi attualmente in uso.


Perché scrivere un programma che esiste già? Mi è servito per penetrare i metodi di allineamento fra due sequenze di amminoacidi, ma soprattutto mi ha permesso di costruire programmi più complessi (non inclusi nel PDF di cui sopra) che sto attualmente utilizzando per risolvere problemi di immunologia. In cerca di una soluzione.

Testing the lymphocyte transformation test for Lyme disease

Testing the lymphocyte transformation test for Lyme disease

In questo articolo dimostro che un test LTT per malattia di Lyme che utilizzi come uno degli antigeni la OspC (proteina integra) di B. burgdorferi sensu stricto può teoricamente risultare positivo (falso positivo) in soggetti con aumentata permeabilità intestinale.


Some lymphocyte transformation tests (LTT) popular in Europe for the diagnosis of Lyme disease, use full length OspC of B. burgdorferi as one of their antigens and request a positive stimulation index against only one or two antigens, in order to be considered positive. In what follows, we demonstrate that, in case of patients with gut bacteria translocation, such a test has a theoretical risk of false positive results.

Lymphocyte transformation test

Lymphocyte transformation test (LTT) is an assay which allows to measure the activity of peripheral blood Th cells against specific antigens. T cell activation starts shortly after infection, with T cells proliferation and the production of cytokines (such as INF-γ) which regulate the adaptive immune response (Sompayrac, 2012). As T cell response vanishes after the resolution of the infection (Kaech, et al., 2007), LTT may be useful in providing a proof of active infection. When a LTT assay is performed, Th cells from peripheral blood of a patient are exposed to proteins from a particular pathogen. If a significant reaction is noted, which could be either Th cells proliferation or INF-γ expression, the assay is considered positive and suggestive of an active infection by that particular pathogen. The response is expressed through a number, often referred to as stimulatory index (SI). In Lyme disease, several attempts have been made in order to obtain such a tool, either by T cells proliferation assays or by INF-γ measures (Dressler, et al., 1991), (Chen, et al., 1999), (Valentine-Thon, et al., 2007), (von Baehr, et al., 2012), (Callister, et al., 2016 May). Nevertheless, this procedure has not been fully recognized as useful at present and neither the European guidelines (Stanek, et al., 2011) nor the CDC (Centers for disease control and prevention, 2015) recommend the use of this kind of test.

Figure 1. Presentation of an antigen to a helper T cell by MHC II molecule.

Th cells activation and cross-reactive T cell epitopes

Th cells are activated when their T cell receptors (TCR) recognize a complementary antigen presented by MHC II molecules (see Figure 1) (Sompayrac, 2012). Peptides presented by MHC II to T helper cells are exclusively linear epitopes, and they have a length between 13 and 17 amino acids (Rudensky, et al., 1991). Various experiments have demonstrated that peptides with 5 identical amino acids in a sequence of 10 have good chances to represent cross-reactive T cell epitopes (Root-Bernstein, 2014). That said, the algorithm described above for the LTT test is not free from the risk of false positive results, as each protein used as antigen could present one or more linear epitopes of 10 amino acids which share at least 5 amino acids with some epitope of 10 amino acids from another pathogen. This risk is particularly high when the assay uses complete proteins as antigens, and when a high SI for only a few antigens is required in order to have a positive result of the test.

OspC and Pseudomonas aeruginosa

We have used BLAST from NCBI (National Library of Medicine), with OspC from Borrelia burgdorferi (strain ATCC 35210 / B31 / CIP 102532 / DSM 4680) identified by the swiss-prot ID Q07337 () as query sequence, settings being as follows: expected threshold of 10, BLOSUM62 as substitution matrix, and a word of 3 amino acids. We have built a custom database with the main Phyla of the human gut microbiome observed in a healthy population, which are Bacteroides, Firmicutes, Proteobacteria, Verrucomicrobia, Actinobacteria, Tenericutes, and Euryarchaeota (Giloteaux, et al., 2016). One of the possible matches that BLAST gives back is the following alignment between the query sequence and the outer membrane protein G (OprG) of Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PDB ID: 2X27):


As you can see, we have 6 identical amino acids in a peptide 10 amino acids long. This means that this peptide from Borrelia burgdorferi could theoretically binds a Th cell previously activated by P. aeruginosa. Peptide 111-120 from OspC is reported in Figure 2. Peptide 51-60 of OrpG is in Figure 3.  The 3D structure of OspC from B. burgdorferi strain B31 used for that picture has been experimentally determined with X rays and a resolution of 2,51 Å in 2001 (Kumaran, et al., 2001) and its MMDB ID is 15958 (). The conclusion from this data is that Th cells from a patient with an active infection by P. aeruginosa could proliferate and produce INF-γ when exposed to OspC from B. burgdorferi. In other words, a patient with an active P. aeruginosa infection would come out to have a positive LTT test for OspC.

Figure 2. Peptide 111-120 (in yellow) of OspC from B. burgdorferi (B31) is surface exposed.
Figure 3. Peptide 51-60 of OrpG from Pseudomona aeruginosa.

Gut bacteria translocation

A disrupted mucosal barrier of the bowel, with consequent translocation of bacteria from the gut to the peripheral blood, has been described in patients with liver diseases (Zhu, et al., 2013), chronic HIV infection (Openshaw, 2009), Crohn’s disease (Wyatt, et al., 1993), and in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) (Giloteaux, et al., 2016). In ME/CFS it has been possible, in particular, to demonstrate the translocation of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, among other gram-negative enterobacteria. In fact serum concentration of IgA against lipopolysaccharides from P. aeruginosa and other enterobacteria has been found to be significantly greater in ME/CFS patients than in normal volunteers (Maes, et al., 2007). Thus in ME/CFS patients the adaptive immune system usually reacts against pathogens which exit from the gut, and in particular we know that it reacts against P. auruginosa.


ME/CFS patients are among the main users of this kind of tests, because of the similarities between Lyme disease and the clinical picture of ME/CFS (Gaudino, et al., 1997). ME/CFS patients have a high prevalence of increased gut permeability and gut microbiome translocation (Giloteaux, et al., 2016), and their immune system reacts against P. aeruginosa in many cases (Maes, et al., 2007). Thus, each LTT for Lyme disease which uses full length OspC from B. burgdorferi ss as antigen, could theoretically lead to a high rate of false positive results in this population of patients. The Lyme disease LTT discussed above, which is currently popular in Europe, is one of such tests. More researches are warranted in order to confirm or exclude the theoretical danger of cross reaction of Lyme disease LTT with gut microbiome. Moreover, on the basis of what here presented, it might be possible to develop an LTT specific for the diagnosis of gut bacteria translocation.