Background: Very little is known about the immunodominance patterns of HIV-1-specific T cell responses during primary HIV-1 infection and the reasons for human lymphocyte antigen (HLA) modulation of disease progression.
Methods and findings: In a cohort of 104 individuals with primary HIV-1 infection, we demonstrate that a subset of CD8(+) T cell epitopes within HIV-1 are consistently targeted early after infection, while other epitopes subsequently targeted through the same HLA class I alleles are rarely recognized. Certain HLA alleles consistently contributed more than others to the total virus-specific CD8(+) T cell response during primary infection, and also reduced the absolute magnitude of responses restricted by other alleles if coexpressed in the same individual, consistent with immunodomination. Furthermore, individual HLA class I alleles that have been associated with slower HIV-1 disease progression contributed strongly to the total HIV-1-specific CD8(+) T cell response during primary infection.
Conclusions: These data demonstrate consistent immunodominance patterns of HIV-1-specific CD8(+) T cell responses during primary infection and provide a mechanistic explanation for the protective effect of specific HLA class I alleles on HIV-1 disease progression.