Close Approximation of Two Platelet Factor 4 Tetramers by Charge Neutralization Forms the Antigens Recognized by HIT Antibodies
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OBJECTIVE: Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT) is a prothrombotic drug reaction caused by antibodies that recognize positively charged platelet factor 4 (PF4), bound to the polyanion, heparin. The resulting immune complexes activate platelets. Unfractionated heparin (UFH) causes HIT more frequently than low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH), whereas the smallest heparin-like molecule (the pentasaccharide, fondaparinux), induces anti-PF4/heparin antibodies as frequently as LMWH, but without exhibiting cross-reactivity with these antibodies. To better understand these findings, we analyzed the molecular structure of the complexes formed between PF4 and UFH, LMWH, or fondaparinux. METHODS AND RESULTS: By atomic force microscopy and photon correlation spectroscopy, we show that with any of the 3 polyanions, but in the order, UFH>LMWH>fondaparinux--PF4 forms clusters in which PF4 tetramers become closely apposed, and to which anti-PF4/heparin antibodies bind. By immunoassay, HIT antibodies bind strongly to PF4/H/PF4 complexes, but only weakly to single PF4/heparin molecules. CONCLUSIONS: HIT antigens are formed when charge neutralization by polyanion allows positively charged PF4 tetramers to undergo close approximation. Whereas such a model could explain why all 3 polyanions form antibodies with similar specificities, the striking differences in the relative size and amount of complexes formed likely correspond to the observed differences in immunogenicity (UFH>LMWH approximately fondaparinux) and clinically relevant cross-reactivity (UFH>LMWH>fondaparinux).
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