Classes of T Cells

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

T cells can be categorized into three distinct classes: helper T cells, regulatory T cells, and cytotoxic T cells. These classes are differentiated based on their expression of certain surface molecules, their mode of activation, and their functional roles in adaptive immunity.

All T cells produce cluster of differentiation (CD) molecules, cell surface glycoproteins that can be used to identify and distinguish between the various types of white blood cells. Although T cells can produce a variety of CD molecules, CD4 and CD8 are the two most important used for differentiation of the classes. Helper T cells and regulatory T cells are characterized by the expression of CD4 on their surface, whereas cytotoxic T cells are characterized by the expression of CD8.

Classes of T cells can also be distinguished by the specific MHC molecules and APCs with which they interact for activation. Helper T cells and regulatory T cells can only be activated by APCs presenting antigens associated with MHC II. In contrast, cytotoxic T cells recognize antigens presented in association with MHC I, either by APCs or by nucleated cells infected with an intracellular pathogen.

The different classes of T cells also play different functional roles in the immune system. Helper T cells serve as the central orchestrators that help activate and direct functions of humoral and cellular immunity. In addition, helper T cells enhance the pathogen-killing functions of macrophages and NK cells of innate immunity. In contrast, the primary role of regulatory T cells is to prevent undesirable and potentially damaging immune responses. Their role in peripheral tolerance, for example, protects against autoimmune disorders, as discussed earlier. Finally, cytotoxic T cells are the primary effector cells for cellular immunity. They recognize and target cells that have been infected by intracellular pathogens, destroying infected cells along with the pathogens inside.

Sources:

Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology


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