High epitope expression levels increase competition between T cells
Both theoretical predictions and experimental findings suggest that T cell populations can compete with each other. There is some debate on whether T cells compete for aspecific stimuli, such as access to the surface on antigen-presenting cells (APCs) or for specific stimuli, such as their cognate epitope ligand. We have developed an individual-based computer simulation model to study T cell competition. Our model shows that the expression level of foreign epitopes per APC determines whether T cell competition is mainly for specific or aspecific stimuli. Under low epitope expression, competition is mainly for the specific epitope stimuli, and, hence, different epitope-specific T cell populations coexist readily. However, if epitope expression levels are high, aspecific competition becomes more important. Such between-specificity competition can lead to competitive exclusion between different epitope-specific T cell populations. Our model allows us to delineate the circumstances that facilitate coexistence of T cells of different epitope specificity. Understanding mechanisms of T cell coexistence has important practical implications for immune therapies that require a broad immune response.