Superior Control of HIV-1 Replication by CD8+ T Cells Targeting Conserved Epitopes: Implications for HIV Vaccine Design

Pratima Kunwar, Natalie Hawkins, Warren L. Dinges, Yi Liu, Erin E. Gabriel, David A. Swan, Claire E. Stevens, Janine Maenza, Ann C. Collier, James I. Mullins, Tomer Hertz, Xuesong Yu, Helen Horton

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44 Scopus citations


A successful HIV vaccine will likely induce both humoral and cell-mediated immunity, however, the enormous diversity of HIV has hampered the development of a vaccine that effectively elicits both arms of the adaptive immune response. To tackle the problem of viral diversity, T cell-based vaccine approaches have focused on two main strategies (i) increasing the breadth of vaccine-induced responses or (ii) increasing vaccine-induced responses targeting only conserved regions of the virus. The relative extent to which set-point viremia is impacted by epitope-conservation of CD8+ T cell responses elicited during early HIV-infection is unknown but has important implications for vaccine design. To address this question, we comprehensively mapped HIV-1 CD8+ T cell epitope-specificities in 23 ART-naïve individuals during early infection and computed their conservation score (CS) by three different methods (prevalence, entropy and conseq) on clade-B and group-M sequence alignments. The majority of CD8+ T cell responses were directed against variable epitopes (p<0.01). Interestingly, increasing breadth of CD8+ T cell responses specifically recognizing conserved epitopes was associated with lower set-point viremia (r = - 0.65, p = 0.009). Moreover, subjects possessing CD8+ T cells recognizing at least one conserved epitope had 1.4 log10 lower set-point viremia compared to those recognizing only variable epitopes (p = 0.021). The association between viral control and the breadth of conserved CD8+ T cell responses may be influenced by the method of CS definition and sequences used to determine conservation levels. Strikingly, targeting variable versus conserved epitopes was independent of HLA type (p = 0.215). The associations with viral control were independent of functional avidity of CD8+ T cell responses elicited during early infection. Taken together, these data suggest that the next-generation of T-cell based HIV-1 vaccines should focus on strategies that can elicit CD8+ T cell responses to multiple conserved epitopes of HIV-1.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere64405
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
StatePublished - 31 May 2013
Externally publishedYes


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