Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) diversity and clinical applications in South Africa

27 May 2020

The major histocompatibility complex, known as the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) complex in humans, forms an integral component of adaptive T cell immunity by presenting self and non-self peptides to the T cell receptor, thereby allowing clonal expansion of responding peptide-specific CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. HLA likewise forms an integral part of the innate immune response through the binding of killercell immunoglobulin-like receptor (KIR) molecules, which regulate the response of natural killer (NK) cells. The HLA complex is found on the short arm of chromosome 6 and is the most polymorphic region in the human genome. Africans are genetically more diverse than other populations; however, information on HLA diversity among southern Africans, including South African populations, is limited. Paucity of African HLA data limits our understanding of disease associations, the ability to identify donor-recipient matches for transplantation and the development of disease-specific vaccines. This review discusses the importance of HLA in the clinical setting in South Africans and highlights how tools such as HLA imputation might augment standard HLA typing methods to increase our understanding of HLA diversity in our populations, which will better inform disease association studies, donor recruitment strategies into bone marrow registries and our understanding of human genetic diversity in South Africa.