Allergen-specific immunotherapy (AIT) constitutes the only curative approach for allergy treatment. There is need for improvement of AIT in veterinary medicine, such as in horses suffering from insect bite hypersensitivity, an IgE-mediated dermatitis to Culicoides. Dendritic cell (DC)-targeting represents an efficient method to increase antigen immunogenicity. It is studied primarily for its use in improvement of cancer therapy and vaccines, but may also be useful for improving AIT efficacy. Immunomodulators, like the Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR-4) agonist monophosphoryl lipid-A (MPLA) has been shown to enhance the IL-10 response in horses, while CpG-rich oligonucleotides (CpG-ODN), acting as TLR-9 agonists, have been shown to induce Th1 or regulatory responses in horses with equine asthma. Our aim was to evaluate in vitro effects of antigen-targeting to equine DC with an antigen-fused peptide known to target human and mouse DC and investigate whether addition of MPLA or CpG-ODN would further improve the induced immune response with regard to finding optimal conditions for equine AIT. For this purpose, DC-binding peptides were fused to the model antigen ovalbumin (OVA) and to the recombinant Culicoides allergen Cul o3. Effects of DC-binding peptides on cellular antigen uptake and induction of T cell proliferation were assessed. Polarity of the immune response was analysed by quantifying IFN-γ, IL-4, IL-10, IL-17 and IFN-α in supernatants of antigen-stimulated peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) in presence or absence of adjuvants. Fusion of DC-binding peptides to OVA significantly enhanced antigen-uptake by equine DC. DC primed with DC-binding peptides coupled to OVA or Cul o3 induced a significantly higher T-cell proliferation compared to the corresponding control antigens. PBMC stimulation with DC-binding peptides coupled to Cul o3 elicited a significant increase in the pro-inflammatory cytokines IFN-γ, IL-4, IL-17, as well as the anti-inflammatory IL-10, but not of IFN-α. Adjuvant addition further enhanced the effect of the DC-binding peptides by significantly increasing the production of IFN-γ, IL-4, IL-10 and IFN-α (CpG-ODN) and IL-10 (MPLA), while simultaneously suppressing IFN-γ, IL-4 and IL-17 production (MPLA). Targeting equine DC with allergens fused to DC-binding peptides enhances antigen-uptake and T-cell activation and may be useful in increasing the equine immune response against recombinant antigens. Combination of DC-binding peptide protein fusions with adjuvants is necessary to appropriately skew the resulting immune response, depending on intended use. Combination with MPLA is a promising option for improvement of AIT efficacy in horses, while combination with CpG-ODN increases the effector immune response to recombinant antigens.
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