Journal of virology 2017 06 2691(14) pii 10.1128/JVI.00130-17
Despite the introduction of effective drugs to treat patients with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, a vaccine would be the only means to substantially reduce the worldwide disease burden. An incomplete understanding of how HCV interacts with its human host and evades immune surveillance has hampered vaccine development. It is generally accepted that in infected individuals, a narrow repertoire of exhausted T cells is a hallmark of persistent infection, whereas broad, vigorous CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cell responses are associated with control of acute hepatitis C. We employed a vaccine approach based on a mixture of peptides (pepmix) spanning the entire sequence of HCV nonstructural protein 3 (NS3) in cross-priming cationic liposomes (CAF09) to facilitate a versatile presentation of all possible T cell epitopes, regardless of the HLA background of the vaccine recipient. Here, we demonstrate that vaccination of mice with NS3 pepmix broadens the repertoire of epitope-specific T cells compared to the corresponding recombinant protein (rNS3). Moreover, vaccination with rNS3 induced only CD4(+) T cells, whereas the NS3 pepmix induced a far more vigorous CD4(+) T cell response and was as potent a CD8(+) T cell inducer as an adenovirus-vectored vaccine expressing NS3. Importantly, the cellular responses are dominated by multifunctional T cells, such as gamma interferon-positive (IFN-γ(+)) tumor necrosis factor alpha-positive (TNF-α(+)) coproducers, and displayed cytotoxic capacity in mice. In conclusion, we present a novel vaccine approach against HCV, inducing a broadened T cell response targeting both immunodominant and potential subdominant epitopes, which may be key elements to counter T cell exhaustion and prevent chronicity.IMPORTANCE With at least 700,000 annual deaths, development of a vaccine against hepatitis C virus (HCV) has high priority, but the tremendous ability of the virus to dodge the human immune system poses great challenges. Furthermore, many chronic infections, including HCV infection, have a remarkable ability to drive initially strong CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cell responses against dominant epitopes toward an exhausted, dysfunctional state. Thus, new and innovative vaccine approaches to control HCV should be evaluated. Here, we report on a novel peptide-based nanoparticle vaccine strategy (NS3 pepmix) aimed at generating T cell immunity against potential subdominant T cell epitopes that are not efficiently targeted by vaccination with full-length recombinant protein (rNS3) or infection with HCV. As proof of concept, we found that NS3 pepmix excels in broadening the repertoire of epitope-specific, multifunctional, and cytotoxic CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells compared to vaccination with rNS3, which generated only CD4(+) T cell responses.