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Understanding cellular decisions due to receptor-ligand interactions at cell-cell interfaces has been hampered by the difficulty of independently varying the surface density of multiple different ligands. Here, we express the synthetic binder protein SpyCatcher, designed to form spontaneous covalent bonds with interactors carrying a Spytag, on the cell surface. Using this, we show that addition of different concentrations and combinations of native Spytag-fused ligands allows for the combinatorial display of ligands on cells within minutes. We use this combinatorial display of cell surface ligands-called CombiCells-to assess T cell antigen sensitivity and the impact of T cell co-stimulation and co-inhibition receptors. We find that the T cell receptor (TCR) displayed greater sensitivity to peptides on major-histocompatibility complexes (pMHC) than synthetic chimeric antigen receptor (CARs) and bi-specific T cell engager (BiTEs) display to their target antigen, CD19. While TCR sensitivity was greatly enhanced by CD2/CD58 interactions, CAR sensitivity was primarily but more modestly enhanced by LFA-1/ICAM-1 interactions. Lastly, we show that PD-1/PD-L1 engagement inhibited T cell activation triggered solely by TCR/pMHC interactions, as well as the amplified activation induced by CD2 and CD28 co-stimulation. The ability to easily produce cells with different concentrations and combinations of ligands should accelerate the study of receptor-ligand interactions at cell-cell interfaces.

Original publication




Journal article


Embo j

Publication Date





132 - 150


Cell–Cell Recognition, Chimeric Antigen Receptors, Receptor/Ligand Interactions, Surface Ligand Presentation, T Cell Antigen Sensitivity