Research Article

Cytomegalovirus Vectors Violate CD8+ T Cell Epitope Recognition Paradigms

Science  24 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6135,
DOI: 10.1126/science.1237874

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Structured Abstract


CD8+ T cell responses focus on a small fraction of total pathogen-encoded peptides, which are similar among individuals with shared major histocompatibility complex (MHC) alleles. This focus can limit immune control of genetically flexible pathogens, such as HIV and SIV, because CD8+ T cells in most infected subjects do not target sequences required for pathogen fitness, resulting in viral escape. Although a vaccine capable of broadening or redirecting CD8+ T cell epitope targeting to prevent viral escape would be highly advantageous, it remains unclear whether this targeting can be diverted from its default pattern during priming.

Embedded Image

Fibroblast-adapted RhCMV/gag vectors elicit MHC class II–restricted CD8+ T cells, greatly expanding the breadth of the response. (Top) Differential inhibition of SIVgag-specific CD8+ T cells from SIV+, fibroblast-adapted RhCMV/gag vector–vaccinated, and tropism-repaired RhCMV/gag vector–vaccinated rhesus macaques by MHC-I versus MHC-II blockade. (Bottom) Responses to consecutive SIVgag 15mer peptides in the indicated animals, classified by sensitivity to MHC-I versus MHC-II blockade.


We used intracellular cytokine analysis to compare the epitope targeting of SIV-specific CD8+ T cell responses in rhesus macaques with controlled SIV infection or after vaccination with either conventional SIV vaccines or rhesus cytomegalovirus (RhCMV) vectors. RhCMV vectors have been associated with stringent control of SIV challenge in the absence of protective MHC alleles.


Fibroblast-adapted RhCMV/SIV vectors elicited SIV-specific CD8+ T cells that failed to target any canonical epitopes associated with SIV infection or conventional SIV vaccination. Instead, they recognized distinct epitopes characterized by extraordinary breadth (greater than that of conventional vaccines by a factor of >3), MHC class II (MHC-II) restriction (63% of epitopes), and high promiscuity (epitopes common to most or all responses in vaccinated macaques). These unconventionally targeted CD8+ T cell responses recognized autologous SIV-infected cells, indicating that processing and presentation of the unconventional epitopes is CMV-independent. However, CMV gene expression was responsible for directing epitope specificity of CD8+ T cells during priming. The induction of canonical SIV epitope–specific CD8+ T cell responses was specifically suppressed by expression of the Rh189/US11 gene, and the promiscuous MHC-I– and MHC-II–restricted CD8+ T cell responses occurred only in the absence of the Rh157.4–.6/UL128–131 genes involved in CMV tropism for nonfibroblasts.


These findings suggest that CD8+ T cell recognition is more flexible than had been thought, and that the focused epitope recognition profiles of conventional CD8+ T cell responses may be primarily restricted by immunoregulation during priming (which can be subverted by CMV) rather than by intrinsic limitations in antigen processing/presentation or in T cell receptor repertoire. The ability of CMVs with different genetic modifications to differentially elicit CD8+ T cell responses with divergent patterns of epitope recognition raises the possibility of a CMV vector–based vaccine platform with programmable CD8+ T cell epitope targeting, including vectors that can selectively elicit CD8+ T cell responses targeting conventional or unconventional epitopes. Because the latter would be unaffected by escape mutations arising during natural infection, these vectors would be well suited for therapeutic vaccine applications.

CMV Breaks All the Rules

One vaccine strategy being pursued against HIV is to generate protection that is dependent on cell-mediated, rather than humoral, immune responses. A cytomegalovirus (CMV)–vectored vaccine that expresses simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) antigens exhibits stringent and durable viral control upon SIV challenge in approximately half of vaccinated rhesus macaques. Hansen et al. (10.1126/science.1237874, see the Perspective by Goonetilleke and McMichael) sought to determine the basis for the protection and discovered that the CD8+ T cell response in vaccinated monkeys does not target canonical SIV epitopes, which SIV is known to escape, but rather generates a broad, promiscuous response.


CD8+ T cell responses focus on a small fraction of pathogen- or vaccine-encoded peptides, and for some pathogens, these restricted recognition hierarchies limit the effectiveness of antipathogen immunity. We found that simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) protein–expressing rhesus cytomegalovirus (RhCMV) vectors elicit SIV-specific CD8+ T cells that recognize unusual, diverse, and highly promiscuous epitopes, including dominant responses to epitopes restricted by class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. Induction of canonical SIV epitope–specific CD8+ T cell responses is suppressed by the RhCMV-encoded Rh189 gene (corresponding to human CMV US11), and the promiscuous MHC class I– and class II–restricted CD8+ T cell responses occur only in the absence of the Rh157.5, Rh157.4, and Rh157.6 (human CMV UL128, UL130, and UL131) genes. Thus, CMV vectors can be genetically programmed to achieve distinct patterns of CD8+ T cell epitope recognition.

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