Protective effect of pre-existing natural immunity in a nonhuman primate reinfection model of congenital cytomegalovirus infection

bioRxiv [Preprint]. 2023 Apr 10:2023.04.10.536057. doi: 10.1101/2023.04.10.536057.


Congenital cytomegalovirus (cCMV) is the leading infectious cause of neurologic defects in newborns with particularly severe sequelae in the setting of primary CMV infection in the first trimester of pregnancy. The majority of cCMV cases worldwide occur after non-primary infection in CMV-seropositive women; yet the extent to which pre-existing natural CMV-specific immunity protects against CMV reinfection or reactivation during pregnancy remains ill-defined. We previously reported on a novel nonhuman primate model of cCMV in rhesus macaques where 100% placental transmission and 83% fetal loss were seen in CD4 + T lymphocyte-depleted rhesus CMV (RhCMV)-seronegative dams after primary RhCMV infection. To investigate the protective effect of preconception maternal immunity, we performed reinfection studies in CD4+ T lymphocyte-depleted RhCMV-seropositive dams inoculated in late first / early second trimester gestation with RhCMV strains 180.92 ( n =2), or RhCMV UCD52 and FL-RhCMVΔRh13.1/SIV gag , a wild-type-like RhCMV clone with SIV gag inserted as an immunological marker ( n =3). An early transient increase in circulating monocytes followed by boosting of the pre-existing RhCMV-specific CD8+ T lymphocyte and antibody response was observed in the reinfected dams but not in control CD4+ T lymphocyte-depleted dams. Emergence of SIV Gag-specific CD8+ T lymphocyte responses in macaques inoculated with the FL-RhCMVΔRh13.1/SIV gag virus confirmed reinfection. Placental transmission was detected in only one of five reinfected dams and there were no adverse fetal sequelae. Viral whole genome, short-read, deep sequencing analysis confirmed transmission of both reinfection RhCMV strains across the placenta with ∼30% corresponding to FL-RhCMVΔRh13.1/SIV gag and ∼70% to RhCMV UCD52, consistent with the mixed human CMV infections reported in infants with cCMV. Our data showing reduced placental transmission and absence of fetal loss after non-primary as opposed to primary infection in CD4+ T lymphocyte-depleted dams indicates that preconception maternal CMV-specific CD8+ T lymphocyte and/or humoral immunity can protect against cCMV infection.

Author summary: Globally, pregnancies in CMV-seropositive women account for the majority of cases of congenital CMV infection but the immune responses needed for protection against placental transmission in mothers with non-primary infection remains unknown. Recently, we developed a nonhuman primate model of primary rhesus CMV (RhCMV) infection in which placental transmission and fetal loss occurred in RhCMV-seronegative CD4+ T lymphocyte-depleted macaques. By conducting similar studies in RhCMV-seropositive dams, we demonstrated the protective effect of pre-existing natural CMV-specific CD8+ T lymphocytes and humoral immunity against congenital CMV after reinfection. A 5-fold reduction in congenital transmission and complete protection against fetal loss was observed in dams with pre-existing immunity compared to primary CMV in this model. Our study is the first formal demonstration in a relevant model of human congenital CMV that natural pre-existing CMV-specific maternal immunity can limit congenital CMV transmission and its sequelae. The nonhuman primate model of non-primary congenital CMV will be especially relevant to studying immune requirements of a maternal vaccine for women in high CMV seroprevalence areas at risk of repeated CMV reinfections during pregnancy.

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