Research ArticleHIV

Antigenic competition in CD4+ T cell responses in a randomized, multicenter, double-blind clinical HIV vaccine trial

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Science Translational Medicine  20 Nov 2019:
Vol. 11, Issue 519, eaaw1673
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaw1673

Troublesome T cells

Many HIV vaccines aim to generate robust T cell responses, but two new studies show that this is not always straightforward. Chamcha et al. analyzed data from several nonhuman primate vaccine studies with SIV/SHIV challenges and discovered that achieving a certain threshold of vaccine-induced IFN-γ+ CD4 T cells lowered vaccine efficacy, possibly by providing target cells for the virus. Kallas et al. vaccinated people with HIV Gag/Pol alone or with Env to see whether antigenic competition could interfere with CD4 T cell responses; lower responses to Gag/Pol were detected when Env was also administered, indicating that including multiple antigens in a vaccine may preclude maximal T cell responses. Together, these studies highlight how we must tread carefully on the path to an effective HIV vaccine.


T cell responses have been implicated in reduced risk of HIV acquisition in uninfected persons and control of viral replication in HIV-infected individuals. HIV Gag-specific T cells have been predominantly associated with post-infection control, whereas Env antigens are the target for protective antibodies; therefore, inclusion of both antigens is common in HIV vaccine design. However, inclusion of multiple antigens may provoke antigenic competition, reducing the potential effectiveness of the vaccine. HVTN 084 was a randomized, multicenter, double-blind phase 1 trial to investigate whether adding Env to a Gag/Pol vaccine decreases the magnitude or breadth of Gag/Pol-specific T cell responses. Fifty volunteers each received one intramuscular injection of 1 × 1010 particle units (PU) of rAd5 Gag/Pol and EnvA/B/C (3:1:1:1 mixture) or 5 × 109 PU of rAd5 Gag/Pol. CD4+ T cell responses to Gag/Pol measured 4 weeks after vaccination by cytokine expression were significantly higher in the group vaccinated without Env, whereas CD8+ T cell responses did not differ significantly between the two groups. Mapping of individual epitopes revealed greater breadth of the Gag/Pol-specific T cell response in the absence of Env compared to Env coimmunization. Addition of an Env component to a Gag/Pol vaccine led to reduced Gag/Pol CD4+ T cell response rate and magnitude as well as reduced epitope breadth, confirming the presence of antigenic competition. Therefore, T cell–based vaccine strategies should aim at choosing a minimalist set of antigens to reduce interference of individual vaccine components with the induction of the maximally achievable immune response.

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