Kunwar P, Hawkins N, Dinges WL, Liu Y, Gabriel EE, Swan DA, Stevens CE, Maenza J, Collier AC, Mullins JI, Hertz T, Yu X, Horton H (2013). Superior control of HIV-1 replication by CD8+ T cells targeting conserved epitopes: implications for HIV vaccine design. PloS one, 8(5), e64405. (pubmed) (doi)
A successful HIV vaccine will likely induce both humoral and cell-mediated immunity, however, the enormous diversity of HIV has hampered the development of a vaccine that effectively elicits both arms of the adaptive immune response. To tackle the problem of viral diversity, T cell-based vaccine approaches have focused on two main strategies (i) increasing the breadth of vaccine-induced responses or (ii) increasing vaccine-induced responses targeting only conserved regions of the virus. The relative extent to which set-point viremia is impacted by epitope-conservation of CD8(+) T cell responses elicited during early HIV-infection is unknown but has important implications for vaccine design. To address this question, we comprehensively mapped HIV-1 CD8(+) T cell epitope-specificities in 23 ART-naïve individuals during early infection and computed their conservation score (CS) by three different methods (prevalence, entropy and conseq) on clade-B and group-M sequence alignments. The majority of CD8(+) T cell responses were directed against variable epitopes (p<0.01). Interestingly, increasing breadth of CD8(+) T cell responses specifically recognizing conserved epitopes was associated with lower set-point viremia (r = - 0.65, p = 0.009). Moreover, subjects possessing CD8(+) T cells recognizing at least one conserved epitope had 1.4 log10 lower set-point viremia compared to those recognizing only variable epitopes (p = 0.021). The association between viral control and the breadth of conserved CD8(+) T cell responses may be influenced by the method of CS definition and sequences used to determine conservation levels. Strikingly, targeting variable versus conserved epitopes was independent of HLA type (p = 0.215). The associations with viral control were independent of functional avidity of CD8(+) T cell responses elicited during early infection. Taken together, these data suggest that the next-generation of T-cell based HIV-1 vaccines should focus on strategies that can elicit CD8(+) T cell responses to multiple conserved epitopes of HIV-1.