HIV has a small genome of approximately 10 kb that comprises of 9 genes encoding structural proteins (Gag, Pol, Env) and regulatory proteins (Tat, Rev, Nef, Vpr, Vif, Vpu), respectively. The viral particle is encapsulated by a lipid membrane bilayer in which HIV envelop (Env) glycoprotein spikes are embedded. Through binding to cell surface receptor (CD4) and co-receptor (CCR5 or CXCR4) by the Env protein, HIV infects CD4+
T cells and eventually causes AIDS. These viral structure and virological properties have been exploited to the development of antiviral drugs, and employed in the designing of vaccine targets. Despite vast knowledge has been acquired on HIV virology and immunology, it has been difficult to translate them into the development of an efficacious HIV vaccine.
Table 1 summarized several major HIV vaccine clinical trials conducted in the last two decades; despite capable of inducing measurable immune responses, none of which has yielded satisfactory clinical outcome. Early efforts had been placed on eliciting antibody responses using various forms of Env vaccine, culminating in phase III clinical trials, VAX003 and VAX004, in which recombinant gp120 proteins were tested as vaccine candidates. However, both trials failed to demonstrate protection against HIV acquisition in human volunteers [5
]. Follow-up mechanistic studies have revealed that the ectodomain of Envprotein is comprised of highly variable, heavily glycosylated core and loop structures surrounding the HIV receptor-binding regions [10
]. Since changes occur in N-linked glycosylation frequently [11
], antibodies targeting carbohydrates are generally not efficient at preventing HIV infection
, with a few exception [12
]. Furthermore, high rate of mutation often occurs in the loop region, thus making strain-specific neutralizing antibodies unable to efficiently neutralize the viral mutants. In addition, some Env epitopes induce non-neutralizing antibodies that compromised the induction of neutralization antibodies [13
]. Much effort is still being placed on the discovery of broadly neutralizing antibodies and design appropriate immunogens to induce broadly neutralizing antibody responses.
With growing knowledge of the antiviral activity of cytotoxic T cell (CTL) in the 1990s, the pendulum of AIDS vaccine development has swung to using various methods to induce HIV
T cells [14
]. One of the leading candidates was an adenovirus-based Gag vaccine that induced high magnitude of CD8+
T cell response and protected against SHIV challenged in non-human primates (NHP) [16
]. Encouraged by the optimistic results in animal models, further clinical trials were performed. Unexpectedly, two large efficacy trials of the CTL-based vaccine neither prevented the acquisition of HIV infection nor reduced viral load or preserved CD4+
T cell counts post infection [7
], thus revealing discrepancies in the vaccine-induced responses between NHP models and real-life infection in humans. Furthermore, whether CTL-based vaccine is of any importance has been questioned.
However, a subsequent study using DNA vaccine prime and adenovirus vector boost strategy showed that protection against SIV infection in rhesus monkeys can still be achieved. Important, the protected monkeys have high-frequency of CD8+
T cell responses against 11 to 34 epitopes, which is much more than that in the STEP human clinical trial where only and average of 5 epitopes were recognized [18
]. This suggests the breadth of CD8+
T cell response maybe important, in addition to the magnitude of the response. Such increased breath, should be important at coping with viral escape from CD8+
T cell control [19
]. Therefore, the current consensus is that CD8+
T cell-based vaccines
need to elicit responses with great magnitude, improved breadth, and poly-functionality [20
Most intriguingly, in the RV144 phase III clinical trials, a vaccine regimen consists of priming with recombinant canarypox vector designed to stimulate CD8+
T cells, and boosting with recombinant glycoprotein 120 subunit designed to elicit neutralizing antibodies
, resulted in a 31.2% vaccine efficacy at the prevention of acquisition of HIV infection [9
], despite neither vaccine used alone accomplished any significant effects.
T cells assist the induction of antibody and CD8+
T cell responses, they should be carefully considered as a component of HIV vaccine. However, CD4+
T cells are the major targets for HIV infection, vaccine-induced CD4+
T cells may acquire an activated phenotypes that make them more susceptible to HIV infection. Indeed, it has been found that vaccine-induced CD4+
T cells contribute to the enhanced SIV replication and accelerated disease progression [23
]. In contrast, others have reported that CD4+
T cells are beneficial in the prevention of SIV infection in experimental models [24
]. In HIV-infected humans, a strong HIV-specific CD4+
T cell response is associated with a better control of viremia [25
]. Further analysis of the RV144 results revealed that HIV-specific CD4+
T cell responses are positively correlated with vaccine efficacy [26
]. Other than providing help, there are a small fraction of CD4+
T cells that have cytotoxic capacity and express granzyme A. These cells are expanded during acute HIV infection in some individuals and appear to help to suppress viral replication [27
Above evidences reinforced the idea that a successful HIV vaccine strategy should aim to induce a CD4+
T cell response, in addition to B cell and CD8+
T cell responses. To harness CD4+
T cells in the development of an efficacious HIV vaccine, we need to first re-evaluate the functional diversity of CD4+
T cell subsets.
The importance of CD4+ T cell subsets in mediation and formation of post-vaccination protective immunity
Upon encountering antigens and adequate co-stimulation signals, naive CD4+
T cells are activated, polarized, and differentiated into distinct subsets including Th1, Th2, Th9, Th17, Th22, Regulatory T cell (Treg), Type I Regulatory cell (Tr1), and Follicular Helper T cell (TFH
). Each subset has unique phenotype, cytokine secretion profiles, and transcriptional factors. Based on the stages of differentiation and anatomic locations, they can also be classified into central memory cell (TCM), effector memory cell (TEM
), and tissue-resident memory cell (TRM
) (Table 2). These T cell subsets either work independently or in concert to modulate other arms of immune responses. Use vaccines to stimulate specific subset of CD4+
T cells, if possible, should help the generation of higher quality antibody and CD8+
T cell responses. Following are a briefly review of the phenotypic and functional properties of each CD4+
T cell subset.
Through interacting and licensing dendritic cells, T helper 1 (Th1) cells contribute to the induction of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) [61
], and the maintenance of memory CTLs that can rapidly produce effector cells upon reinfection to eliminate pathogens [62
]. In HIV infection, CTLs have been shown to suppress HIV-1 replication in cell cultures and they are associated with better control of viral loads in HIV-1 infected individuals [63
]. The loss of Th1 cells during HIV-1 infection renders inefficient generation of new CTLs, and failure to prevent disease progression. A vaccine intended to stimulate effective antiviral CTL responses should thus contain a component for inducing sufficient Th1cells.
T helper 2 (Th2) cells modulate humoral immune responses and promote host defence against extracellular pathogens such as bacteria and parasites [67
]. By interacting with Th2 cells, B cells undergo activation, proliferation and production of antigen-specific IgG antibodies, or the secretion of IgA antibodies [71
]. IgG antibodies are a common form of neutralizing antibody against HIV. Secreted IgA antibodies play a key role in defending HIV-1 infection since the initial HIV infection often occurs at the mucosal surface [72
]. Thus, a vaccine geared to stimulate anti-HIV antibodies must also include antigens to activate Th2 cells.
Follicular T helper cells (Tfh) help the formation and maintenance of germinal centers (GCs) [57
]. In GCs, Tfh cells provide survival and proliferative signals to B cells to facilitate B cell proliferation, differentiation into plasma B cells or memory B cells, as well as antibody affinity maturation and class-switching [73
]. Furthermore, Tfh cells assist B cells to produce broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) more swiftly [74
]. However, a small fraction of Tfh cells are productively infected by HIV, rendering them defective [75
]. Thus, use vaccine to induce Tfh response, and protect them from being destroyed by HIV infection should be beneficial for the elicitation of better quality neutralizing antibody responses against HIV. In fact, elucidating specific phenotypic and functional features of those Tfh cells that help to induce bNAbs, and harnessing these cells in HIV vaccine development had been topics of intense discussion in a recent NIH workshop [76
T helper 17 (Th17) cells principally function in the protection against extracellular pathogens [41
], through producing cytokines to maintain the integrity of the mucosal barrier and modulate the immune homeostasis at mucosal sites [77
]. Mucosal tissues are the first barrier against HIV infection and a major site for HIV replication, thus a robust Th17 cell response contributing positively to the prevention of HIV infection [77
]. HIV-specific Th17 cells are induced during early HIV infection [78
]. In NHP models, a severe loss of Th17 cells was found in pathogenic SIV infections, whereas no obvious Th17 cell depletion has been shown in nonpathogenic SIV infections that occur in sooty mangabeys and African green monkeys [79
]. Thus, a vaccine that induces Th17 cells should contribute to the prevention of HIV infection or the control of disease progression post infection.
Distinguished from other subsets of CD4+
T cells by expressing the master transcription factor Foxp3, regulatory T cells (Treg) suppress immune responses through the secretion of inhibitory cytokines such as IL-10, TGF-β and IL-35 [81
]. Its role in HIV infection is uncertain currently. On one hand, by suppressing immune activation, Treg helps to reduce the detrimental persistent immune activation causing by HIV infection, and thus preventing disease progression [83
]. On the other hand, Treg can inhibit HIV-specific immune responses, and thereby facilitate viral replication under certain circumstances [84
]. Whether a vaccine should elicit Treg warrants further investigation.
In addition to the above mention CD4+
T cell subset, the potential roles of other subsets such as Th22, Tr1, and TRM
in the development of HIV vaccine are unclear. However, the contribution of these other subsets to the overall success of vaccine-induce immune response to HIV should be investigated in future studies.