Sequence evolution and escape from specific immune pressure of an HIV-1 Rev epitope with extensive sequence similarity to human nucleolar protein 6

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Antigen-specific immunity is crucially important for containing viral replication in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1-infected hosts. Several epitopes have been predicted for the early expressed HIV-1 proteins Tat and Rev, but few have been studied in detail. We characterized the human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-B44-restricted Rev epitope EELLKTVRL (EL9) in an HIV-1-infected subject treated with antiretroviral therapy. Interestingly, a high sequence similarity was found between the EL9 epitope and the human nucleolar protein 6 (NOL6). However, this similarity does not seem to impede immunogenicity as CD8+ T-cells, previously stimulated with EL9-pulsed dendritic cells, were able to specifically recognize the HIV-1 Rev epitope without cross-recognizing the human self-antigen NOL6. After the subject interrupted antiretroviral therapy and virus rebounded, mutations within the EL9 epitope were identified. Although the emerging mutations resulted in decreased or abolished T-cell recognition, they did not impair Rev protein function. Mutations leading to escape from T-cell recognition persisted for up to 124 weeks following treatment interruption. This study shows that the HLA-B44-restricted Rev CD8+ T-cell epitope EL9 is immunogenic notwithstanding its close resemblance to a human peptide. The epitope mutates as a consequence of dynamic interaction between T-cells and HIV-1. Clinical status, CD4+ T-cell count and viral load remained stable despite escape from T-cell recognition.

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