Immunodominant HIV-1 Cd4+ T cell epitopes in chronic untreated clade C HIV-1 infection.
Ramduth D., Day CL., Thobakgale CF., Mkhwanazi NP., de Pierres C., Reddy S., van der Stok M., Mncube Z., Nair K., Moodley ES., Kaufmann DE., Streeck H., Coovadia HM., Kiepiela P., Goulder PJR., Walker BD.
BACKGROUND: A dominance of Gag-specific CD8+ T cell responses is significantly associated with a lower viral load in individuals with chronic, untreated clade C human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection. This association has not been investigated in terms of Gag-specific CD4+ T cell responses, nor have clade C HIV-1-specific CD4+ T cell epitopes, likely a vital component of an effective global HIV-1 vaccine, been identified. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Intracellular cytokine staining was conducted on 373 subjects with chronic, untreated clade C infection to assess interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) responses by CD4+ T cells to pooled Gag peptides and to determine their association with viral load and CD4 count. Gag-specific IFN-gamma-producing CD4+ T cell responses were detected in 261/373 (70%) subjects, with the Gag responders having a significantly lower viral load and higher CD4 count than those with no detectable Gag response (p<0.0001 for both parameters). To identify individual peptides targeted by HIV-1-specific CD4+ T cells, separate ELISPOT screening was conducted on CD8-depleted PBMCs from 32 chronically infected untreated subjects, using pools of overlapping peptides that spanned the entire HIV-1 clade C consensus sequence, and reconfirmed by flow cytometry to be CD4+ mediated. The ELISPOT screening identified 33 CD4+ peptides targeted by 18/32 patients (56%), with 27 of the 33 peptides located in the Gag region. Although the breadth of the CD4+ responses correlated inversely with viral load (p = 0.015), the magnitude of the response was not significantly associated with viral load. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: These data indicate that in chronic untreated clade C HIV-1 infection, IFN-gamma-secreting Gag-specific CD4+ T cell responses are immunodominant, directed at multiple distinct epitopes, and associated with viral control.