Peptide presentation is critical for immune recognition of pathogen-infected cells by CD8+ T lymphocytes. Although a limited number of immunodominant peptide epitopes are consistently observed in diseases such as HIV-1 infection, the relationship between immunodominance and antigen processing in humans is largely unknown. Here, we have demonstrated that endogenous processing and presentation of a human immunodominant HIV-1 epitope is more efficient than that of a subdominant epitope. Furthermore, we have shown that the regions flanking the immunodominant epitope constitute a portable motif that increases the production and antigenicity of otherwise subdominant epitopes. We used a novel in vitro degradation assay involving cytosolic extracts as well as endogenous intracellular processing assays to examine 2 well-characterized HIV-1 Gag overlapping epitopes presented by the same HLA class I allele, one of which is consistently immunodominant and the other subdominant in infected persons. The kinetics and products of degradation of HIV-1 Gag favored the production of peptides encompassing the immunodominant epitope and destruction of the subdominant one. Notably, cytosolic digestion experiments revealed flanking residues proximal to the immunodominant epitope that increased the production and antigenicity of otherwise subdominant epitopes. Furthermore, specific point mutations in these portable flanking sequences modulated the production and antigenicity of epitopes. Such portable epitope processing determinants provide what we believe is a novel approach to optimizing CTL responses elicited by vaccine vectors.
Sylvie Le Gall, Pamela Stamegna, Bruce D. Walker