The molecular relationship between antigenic domains and epitopes on hCG

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Berger, Peter ; Lapthorn, Adrian J. (2016)

Antigenic domains are defined to contain a limited number of neighboring epitopes recognized by antibodies (Abs) but their molecular relationship remains rather elusive. We thoroughly analyzed the antigenic surface of the important pregnancy and tumor marker human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a cystine knot (ck) growth factor, and set antigenic domains and epitopes in molecular relationships to each other. Antigenic domains on hCG, its free hCGα and hCGβ subunits are dependent on appropriate inherent molecular features such as molecular accessibility and protrusion indices that determine bulging structures accessible to Abs. The banana-shaped intact hCG comprises ∼7500 Å2 of antigenic surface with minimally five antigenic domains that encompass a continuum of overlapping non-linear composite epitopes, not taking into account the C-terminal peptide extension of hCGβ (hCGβCTP). Epitopes within an antigenic domain are defined by specific Abs, that bury nearly 1000 Å2 of surface accessible area on the antigen and recognize a few up to 15 amino acid (aa) residues, whereby between 2 and 5 of these provide the essential binding energy. Variability in Ab binding modes to the contact aa residues are responsible for the variation in affinity and intra- and inter-species specificity, e.g. cross-reactions with luteinizing hormone (LH). Each genetically distinct fragment antigen binding (Fab) defines its own epitope. Consequently, recognition of the same epitope by different Abs is only possible in cases of genetically identical sequences of its binding sites. Due to combinatorial V(D)J gene segment variability of heavy and light chains, Abs defining numerous epitopes within an antigenic domain can be generated by different individuals and species. Far more than hundred Abs against the immuno-dominant antigenic domains of either subunit at both ends of the hCG-molecule, the tips of peptide loops one and three (Ł1 + 3) protruding from the central ck, encompassing hCGβŁ1 + 3 (aa 20–25 + 64 + 68–81) and hCGαŁ1 (aa 13–22; Pro16, Phe17, Phe18) plus hCGαŁ3 (Met71, Phe74), respectively, have been identified in the two “ISOBM Tissue Differentiation-7 Workshops on hCG and Related Molecules” and in other studies. These Abs recognize distinct but overlapping epitopes with slightly different specificity profiles and affinities. Heterodimeric-specific epitopes involve neighboring αŁ1 plus βŁ2 (hCGβ44/45 and 47/48). Diagnostically important Abs recognize the middle of the molecule, the ck (aa Arg10, Arg60 and possibly Gln89) and the linear hCGβCTP “tail” (aa 135–145; Asp139, Pro144, Gln145), respectively. Identification of antigenic domains and of specific epitopes is essential for harmonization of Abs in methods that are used for reliable and robust hCG measurements for the management of pregnancy, pregnancy-related disease and tumors.
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