Cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL)-mediated immune responses are the primary defense mechanism against cancer and infection. CTL epitope peptides have been used as vaccines to boost CTL responses; however, the efficacy of these peptides is suboptimal. Under current vaccine formulation and delivery strategies, these vaccines are delivered into and processed inside antigen-presenting cells such as dendritic cells (DCs). However, the intracellular process is not efficient, which at least partially contributes to the suboptimal efficacy of the vaccines. Thus, we hypothesized that directly loading epitopes onto MHC class I complexes (MHC-Is) on the DC surface would significantly improve the efficacy of the epitopes because the direct loading bypasses inefficient intra-DC vaccine processing. To test the hypothesis, we designed an immune-tolerant elastin-like polypeptide (iTEP)-delivered CTL vaccine containing a metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9)-sensitive peptide and an CTL epitope peptide. We found that the epitope was released from this MMP-sensitive vaccine through cleavage by DC-secreted MMP-9 outside of the DCs. The released epitopes were directly loaded onto MHC-Is on the DC surface. Ultimately, the MMP-sensitive vaccine strikingly increased epitope presentation by DCs by 7-fold and enhanced the epitope-specific CD8+ T-cell response by as high as 9.6-fold compared to the vaccine that was uncleavable by MMP. In summary, this novel direct-loading strategy drastically boosted vaccine efficacy. This study offered a new avenue to enhance CTL vaccines.
Keywords: CTL vaccine; DC presentation; MHC-I; MMP; direct loading; epitope; iTEP.