Recombinant hepatitis B virus antigen (rHBsAg)-specific CD4+ T cell clones (TCC) were isolated and expanded from the peripheral blood of nine children vaccinated at birth against the hepatitis B (HB) virus. Four of them responded with protective antibody production (responders), three subjects were unable to produce detectable antibody levels even after revaccination (nonresponders), and two infants produced antibodies only after revaccination (slow responders). TCC were then characterized for their ability to produce cytokines known to be important for T cell expansion (interleukin-2, IL-2) and/or effector functions (IL-4, IFN-gamma, IL-10). Results demonstrated that the frequency of rHBsAg-specific TCC in the samples of nonresponders was comparable to or higher than that in the samples of responders. Nevertheless, the majority of TCC obtained from responders or from slow responders before revaccination displayed the T helper 1 (T(H1))-dominant phenotype, while the majority of TCC obtained from nonresponders were nonpolarized T lymphocytes. After revaccination, the distribution of the different T(H) subsets in slow responders was heterogeneous. Overall, our present data suggest that an absence or delay in developing an rHBsAg-specific antibody response to vaccination is not associated with the capacity to generate an Ag-specific T cell response. However, compared to responders, nonresponding infants react to the rHBsAg vaccination with a reduced capacity to expand and differentiate toward polarized T(H) cells.
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