In a recent article posted to the bioRxiv* preprint server, researchers demonstrated the sarbecovirus open reading frame 7a (ORF7a)-induced hindrance of the antigen presentation by the major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) in hosts.
Viruses use numerous techniques to counteract or evade immune responses to propagate and replicate in a host population that exhibits an immunologically hostile condition. Studies have shown that a sarbecovirus subgenus member, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), opposes the innate immune response via viral proteins and evades humoral immunity by variations in the spike (S) protein's neutralizing epitopes.
Moreover, many viruses lower cell surface MHC-I that generally present viral peptides towards CD8+ cytotoxic T cells. Viruses that cause persistent infections use various ways to eliminate MHC-I from infected cell surfaces. On the other hand, viruses associated with acute, short-term infection seldom cause MHC-I downregulation.
Interestingly, the approximately 30-kb SARS-CoV-2 genome harbors envelope (E), membrane (M), nucleocapsid (N), and S structural proteins, nonstructural proteins 1 to 16 (nsp 1 to 16), and several accessory ORFs like ORF3a, ORF7a, ORF6, ORF10, ORF8, ORF10, ORF3b, and ORF9c. Prior research into CoV-host protein-protein interactions has indicated that various viral proteins (ORF3b, ORF3a, ORF8, ORF7a, nsp4, and M) interact with host proteins enriched in the Golgi or endoplasmic reticulum (ER). These were the organelles where viral peptides are packed onto MHC-I molecules and translocated to the cell surface for presenting to the CD8+ T-cells. Furthermore, it has been reported that SARS-CoV-2 ORF8 lowers MHC-I expression on the infected cell surface.
About the study
The present study unraveled biological processes linked to individual SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins. To generate each SARS-CoV-2 viral ORF, the researchers used pSCRPSY, a human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1)-based lentiviral vector. The team validated MHC-1 downregulation by SARS-CoV-2 using a separate antibody that was distinctive for the human leukocyte antigen-A heavy chain (HLA-A HC). They discovered how ORF7a could lower MHC-I titers on the cell surface.
In addition, the investigators analyzed whether ORF7a proteins from a range of bat SARS-related CoVs (SARSrCoV), including HKU3-1, BM48-31, Rs672, Rf1, ZXC21, RaTG13, and ZC45, may diminish cell surface MHC-I titers comparable to SARS-CoV-2. Six chimeric SARS-CoV-2/SARS-CoV ORF7a expression vectors were created to explore the predictors of the differential capacity to modify cell surface MHC-I concentrations. The team immunoprecipitated endogenously generated MHC-I HC in ORF7a harboring cells to test if ORF7a proteins could physically bind with MHC-I.
293T cells were modified to express HIV-1 group antigen (Gag) protein, HLA-A11, and an ORF7a protein to assess if SARS-CoV-2 ORF7a could limit antigen presentation. Besides, the authors thoroughly analyzed how ORF7a affects MHC-I transport via the secretory pathway and cell surface antigen presentation.
The researchers did not find that the SARS-CoV-2 ORF8 protein led to MHC-I downregulation, unlike prior reports. On the contrary, they discovered that (ORF7a) lowered cell surface MHC-I concentrations nearly five-fold. The authors concluded that SARS-CoV-2 ORF7a prevents MHC-I from reaching the cell surface via the secretory route. Nonetheless, even without ORF7a, surface MHC-I titers were decreased in SARS-CoV-2-infected cells, implying that SARS-CoV-2 uses additional pathways for downregulating MHC-I and diminishing the visibility of reacting CD8+ T-cells.
The capacity of ORF7a proteins from diverse sarbecoviruses to cause MHC-I downregulation varied. ORF7a proteins from Rf1, RaTG13, ZXC21, and ZC45 reduced MHC-I surface levels, but not those from HKU3-1, Rs672, or BM48-31 ORF7. Further, unlike SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV's ORF7a protein did not exhibit MHC-I downregulating function, despite encoding 85% similar amino acids as SARS-CoV-2 ORF7a.
The differential MHC-I downregulating capability of sarbecovirus was mediated by a single amino acid at position 59 (threonine (T)/phenylalanine (F)). The team also found that it varied among sarbecovirus ORF7a proteins. SARS-CoV-2 ORF7a was physically linked to the MHC-I HC, preventing expressed antigen from being presented to CD8+ T cells. ORF7a, in particular, hindered the aggregation of the MHC-I peptide loading complex, resulting in MHC-I retention inside the ER. As the capacity of ORF7a proteins to operate in this fashion varies, it could impact sarbecovirus dissemination and retention in humans, especially in those with vaccine- or infection-elicited immunity.
Overall, the study data depicted that SARS-CoV-2 ORF7a can impede antigen presentation by blocking the aggregation of the MHC-I peptide loading complex and inducing MHC-I retention in the ER. Interestingly, the capacity of ORF7a proteins from diverse sarbecoviruses to cause MHC-I downregulation varied. The differential ability to elicit MHC-I downregulation was governed by a single amino acid distinct among sarbecovirus ORF7a proteins.
bioRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.