Background: None of the HIV T-cell vaccine candidates that have reached advanced clinical testing have been able to induce protective T cell immunity. A major reason for these failures may have been suboptimal T cell immunogen designs.
Methods: To overcome this problem, we used a novel immunogen design approach that is based on functional T cell response data from more than 1,000 HIV-1 clade B and C infected individuals and which aims to direct the T cell response to the most vulnerable sites of HIV-1.
Results: Our approach identified 16 regions in Gag, Pol, Vif and Nef that were relatively conserved and predominantly targeted by individuals with reduced viral loads. These regions formed the basis of the HIVACAT T-cell Immunogen (HTI) sequence which is 529 amino acids in length, includes more than 50 optimally defined CD4(+) and CD8(+) T-cell epitopes restricted by a wide range of HLA class I and II molecules and covers viral sites where mutations led to a dramatic reduction in viral replicative fitness. In both, C57BL/6 mice and Indian rhesus macaques immunized with an HTI-expressing DNA plasmid (DNA.HTI) induced broad and balanced T-cell responses to several segments within Gag, Pol, and Vif. DNA.HTI induced robust CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cell responses that were increased by a booster vaccination using modified virus Ankara (MVA.HTI), expanding the DNA.HTI induced response to up to 3.2% IFN-γ T-cells in macaques. HTI-specific T cells showed a central and effector memory phenotype with a significant fraction of the IFN-γ(+) CD8(+) T cells being Granzyme B(+) and able to degranulate (CD107a(+)).
Conclusions: These data demonstrate the immunogenicity of a novel HIV-1 T cell vaccine concept that induced broadly balanced responses to vulnerable sites of HIV-1 while avoiding the induction of responses to potential decoy targets that may divert effective T-cell responses towards variable and less protective viral determinants.