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Genetics Home Reference: your guide to understanding genetic conditions     A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine®

HLA gene family

Reviewed February 2009

What are the HLA genes?

The HLA gene family provides instructions for making a group of related proteins known as the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) complex. The HLA complex helps the immune system distinguish the body's own proteins from proteins made by foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria.

HLA is the human version of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a gene family that occurs in many species. In humans, the MHC complex consists of more than 200 genes located close together on chromosome 6. Genes in this complex are categorized into three basic groups: class I, class II, and class III.

Humans have three main MHC class I genes, known as HLA-A, HLA-B, and HLA-C. The proteins produced from these genes are present on the surface of almost all cells. On the cell surface, these proteins are bound to protein fragments (peptides) that have been exported from within the cell. MHC class I proteins display these peptides to the immune system. If the immune system recognizes the peptides as foreign (such as viral or bacterial peptides), it responds by triggering the infected cell to self-destruct.

There are six main MHC class II genes in humans: HLA-DPA1, HLA-DPB1, HLA-DQA1, HLA-DQB1, HLA-DRA, and HLA-DRB1. MHC class II genes provide instructions for making proteins that are present almost exclusively on the surface of certain immune system cells. Like MHC class I proteins, these proteins display peptides to the immune system.

The proteins produced from MHC class III genes have somewhat different functions; they are involved in inflammation and other immune system activities. The functions of some MHC genes are unknown.

HLA genes have many possible variations, allowing each person's immune system to react to a wide range of foreign invaders. Some HLA genes have hundreds of identified versions (alleles), each of which is given a particular number (such as HLA-B27). Closely related alleles are categorized together; for example, at least 40 very similar alleles are subtypes of HLA-B27. These subtypes are designated as HLA-B*2701 to HLA-B*2743.

More than 100 diseases have been associated with different alleles of HLA genes. For example, the HLA-B27 allele increases the risk of developing an inflammatory joint disease called ankylosing spondylitis. Many other disorders involving abnormal immune function and some forms of cancer have also been associated with specific HLA alleles. However, it is often unclear what role HLA genes play in the risk of developing these diseases.

Which genes are included in the HLA gene family?

The HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC) provides an index of gene families ( and their member genes.

Genetics Home Reference summarizes the normal function and health implications of these members of the HLA gene family: HLA-B, HLA-DPB1, HLA-DQA1, HLA-DQB1, and HLA-DRB1.

What conditions are related to genes in the HLA gene family?

Genetics Home Reference includes these conditions related to genes in the HLA gene family:

  • ankylosing spondylitis
  • autoimmune Addison disease
  • Behçet disease
  • celiac disease
  • granulomatosis with polyangiitis
  • Graves disease
  • Hashimoto thyroiditis
  • idiopathic inflammatory myopathy
  • juvenile idiopathic arthritis
  • multiple sclerosis
  • narcolepsy
  • psoriatic arthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome/toxic epidermal necrolysis
  • type 1 diabetes

Where can I find additional information about the HLA gene family?

You may find the following resources about the HLA gene family helpful.

  • HLA Informatics Group ( (The Anthony Nolan Trust)
  • Chromosome 6: HLA genes and the human immune system ( (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)
  • Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals: Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) System (
  • EMBL-EBI: IMGT/HLA Database (

What glossary definitions help with understanding the HLA gene family?

allele ; bacteria ; cancer ; cell ; chromosome ; class ; gene ; HLA ; immune system ; inflammation ; joint ; leukocyte ; MHC ; protein ; spondylitis

You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary.


These sources were used to develop the Genetics Home Reference summary for the HLA gene family.

  • Khan MA, Mathieu A, Sorrentino R, Akkoc N. The pathogenetic role of HLA-B27 and its subtypes. Autoimmun Rev. 2007 Jan;6(3):183-9. Epub 2006 Dec 8. Review. (
  • Shiina T, Inoko H, Kulski JK. An update of the HLA genomic region, locus information and disease associations: 2004. Tissue Antigens. 2004 Dec;64(6):631-49. Review. (
  • Marsh SG, Albert ED, Bodmer WF, Bontrop RE, Dupont B, Erlich HA, Geraghty DE, Hansen JA, Hurley CK, Mach B, Mayr WR, Parham P, Petersdorf EW, Sasazuki T, Schreuder GM, Strominger JL, Svejgaard A, Terasaki PI, Trowsdale J. Nomenclature for Factors of the HLA System, 2004. Hum Immunol. 2005 May;66(5):571-636. Epub 2005 Mar 3. (
  • Biochemistry (fifth edition, 2002): Major-Histocompatibility-Complex Proteins Present Peptide Antigens on Cell Surfaces for Recognition by T-Cell Receptors ( (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
  • Immunobiology (fifth edition 2001): The Major Histocompatibility Complex and its Functions ( (U.S. National Library of Medicine)


The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified healthcare professional. See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? ( in the Handbook.

Reviewed: February 2009
Published: February 1, 2016