Research Article

Diversion of HIV-1 vaccine–induced immunity by gp41-microbiota cross-reactive antibodies

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Science  14 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6249, aab1253
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab1253

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Microbiota can mislead antibodies

Unlike the response to many viral infections, most people do not produce antibodies capable of clearing HIV-1. Non-neutralizing antibodies that target HIV-1's envelope glycoprotein (Env) typically dominate the response, which is generated by B cells that cross-react with Env and the intestinal microbiota. Williams et al. analyzed samples from individuals who had received a vaccine containing the Env protein, including the gp41 subunit. Most of the antibodies were non-neutralizing and targeted gp41. The antibodies also reacted to intestinal microbiota, suggesting that preexisting immunity to microbial communities skews vaccineinduced immune responses toward an unproductive target.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aab1253.

Structured Abstract


Inducing protective antibodies is a key goal in HIV-1 vaccine development. In acute HIV-1 infection, the dominant initial plasma antibody response is to the gp41 subunit of the envelope (Env) glycoprotein of the virus. These antibodies derive from polyreactive B cells that cross-react with Env and intestinal microbiota (IM) and are unable to neutralize HIV-1. However, whether a similar gp41-IM cross-reactive antibody response would occur in the setting of HIV-1 Env vaccination is unknown.


We studied antibody responses in individuals who received a DNA prime vaccine, with a recombinant adenovirus serotype 5 (rAd5) boost (DNA prime–rAd5 boost), a vaccine that included HIV-1 gag, pol, and nef genes, as well as a trivalent mixture of clade A, B, and C env gp140 genes containing both gp120 and gp41 components. This vaccine showed no efficacy. Thus, study of these vaccinees provided an opportunity to determine whether the Env-reactive antibody response in the setting of Env vaccination was dominated by gp41-reactive antibodies derived from Env-IM cross-reactive B cells.


We found that vaccine-induced antibodies to HIV-1 Env dominantly focused on gp41 compared with gp120 by both serologic analysis and by vaccine-Env memory B cells sorted by flow cytometry (see the figure). Remarkably, the majority of HIV-1 Env-reactive memory B cells induced by the vaccine produced gp41-reactive antibodies, and the majority of gp41-targeted antibodies used restricted immunoglobulin heavy chain variable genes. Functionally, none of the gp41-reactive antibodies could neutralize HIV, and the majority could not mediate antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity. Most of the vaccine-induced gp41-reactive antibodies cross-reacted with host and IM antigens. Two of the candidate gp41-intestinal cross-reactive antigens were bacterial RNA polymerase and pyruvate-flavodoxin oxidoreductase, which shared sequence similarities with the heptad repeat 1 region of HIV gp41. Next-generation sequencing of vaccinee B cells demonstrated a prevaccination antibody that was reactive to both IM and the vaccine–Env gp140, which demonstrated the presence of a preexisting pool of gp41-IM cross-reactive B cells from which the vaccine gp41-reactive antibody response was derived.


In this study, we found that the DNA prime–rAd5 boost HIV-1 vaccine induced a gp41-reactive antibody response that was mainly non-neutralizing and derived from an IM-gp41 cross-reactive B cell pool. These findings have important implications for HIV-1 vaccine design. Because IM antigens shape the B cell repertoire from birth, our data raise the hypothesis that neonatal immunization with HIV-1 envelope may be able to imprint the B cell repertoire to respond to envelope antigenic sites that may otherwise be subdominant or disfavored, such as Env broadly neutralizing antibody epitopes. Our data also suggest that deleting or modifying amino acids in the gp41 heptad repeat 1 region of Env-containing vaccine immunogens may avoid IM-gp41 cross-reactivity. Thus, an obstacle that may need to be overcome for development of a successful HIV vaccine is diversion of potentially protective HIV-1 antibody responses by preexisting envelope-IM cross-reactive pools of B cells.

Diversion of HIV-1 vaccine–induced immunity by Env gp41–microbiota cross-reactive antibodies.

Immunization of humans with a vaccine containing HIV-1 Env gp120 and gp41 components, including the membrane-proximal external region (MPER) of Env, induced a dominant B cell response primarily from a preexisting pool of gp41-IM cross-reactive B cells. This response diverted the vaccine-stimulated antibody response away from smaller subdominant B cell pools capable of reacting with potentially protective epitopes on HIV-1 Env.


An HIV-1 DNA prime vaccine, with a recombinant adenovirus type 5 (rAd5) boost, failed to protect from HIV-1 acquisition. We studied the nature of the vaccine-induced antibody (Ab) response to HIV-1 envelope (Env). HIV-1–reactive plasma Ab titers were higher to Env gp41 than to gp120, and repertoire analysis demonstrated that 93% of HIV-1–reactive Abs from memory B cells responded to Env gp41. Vaccine-induced gp41-reactive monoclonal antibodies were non-neutralizing and frequently polyreactive with host and environmental antigens, including intestinal microbiota (IM). Next-generation sequencing of an immunoglobulin heavy chain variable region repertoire before vaccination revealed an Env-IM cross-reactive Ab that was clonally related to a subsequent vaccine-induced gp41-reactive Ab. Thus, HIV-1 Env DNA-rAd5 vaccine induced a dominant IM-polyreactive, non-neutralizing gp41-reactive Ab repertoire response that was associated with no vaccine efficacy.

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