Helper T cells can only be activated by APCs presenting processed foreign epitopes in association with MHC II. The first step in the activation process is TCR recognition of the specific foreign epitope presented within the MHC II antigen-binding cleft. The second step involves the interaction of CD4 on the helper T cell with a region of the MHC II molecule separate from the antigen-binding cleft. This second interaction anchors the MHC II-TCR complex and ensures that the helper T cell is recognizing both the foreign (“nonself”) epitope and “self” antigen of the APC; both recognitions are required for activation of the cell. In the third step, the APC and T cell secrete cytokines that activate the helper T cell. The activated helper T cell then proliferates, dividing by mitosis to produce clonal naïve helper T cells that differentiate into subtypes with different functions.
Activated helper T cells can differentiate into one of four distinct subtypes, summarized in the table below. The differentiation process is directed by APC-secreted cytokines. Depending on which APC-secreted cytokines interact with an activated helper T cell, the cell may differentiate into a T helper 1 (TH1) cell, a T helper 2 (TH2) cell, or a memory helper T cell. The two types of helper T cells are relatively short-lived effector cells, meaning that they perform various functions of the immediate immune response. In contrast, memory helper T cells are relatively long lived; they are programmed to “remember” a specific antigen or epitope in order to mount a rapid, strong, secondary response to subsequent exposures.
TH1 cells secrete their own cytokines that are involved in stimulating and orchestrating other cells involved in adaptive and innate immunity. For example, they stimulate cytotoxic T cells, enhancing their killing of infected cells and promoting differentiation into memory cytotoxic T cells. TH1 cells also stimulate macrophages and neutrophils to become more effective in their killing of intracellular bacteria. They can also stimulate NK cells to become more effective at killing target cells.
TH2 cells play an important role in orchestrating the humoral immune response through their secretion of cytokines that activate B cells and direct B cell differentiation and antibody production. Various cytokines produced by TH2 cells orchestrate antibody class switching, which allows B cells to switch between the production of IgM, IgG, IgA, and IgE as needed to carry out specific antibody functions and to provide pathogen-specific humoral immune responses.
A third subtype of helper T cells called TH17 cells was discovered through observations that immunity to some infections is not associated with TH1 or TH2 cells. TH17 cells and the cytokines they produce appear to be specifically responsible for the body’s defense against chronic mucocutaneous infections. Patients who lack sufficient TH17 cells in the mucosa (e.g., HIV patients) may be more susceptible to bacteremia and gastrointestinal infections.
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