Despite detailed analysis of the HIV-1-specific cytotoxic T lymphocyte response by various groups, its relation to viral load and viral sequence variation remains controversial. We analyzed HLA-A*0201 restricted cytotoxic T lymphocyte responses in 17 HIV-1-infected individuals with viral loads ranging from < 400 to 221,000 HIV RNA molecules per milliliter of plasma. In 13 out of 17 infected subjects, CTL responses against the SLYNTVATL epitope (p17 Gag; aa 77-85) were detectable, whereas two other HLA-A*0201 restricted epitopes (ILKEPVHGV, IV9; and VIYQYMDDL, VL9) were only recognized by six and five individuals out of 17 individuals tested, respectively. Naturally occurring variants of the SL9 epitope were tested for binding to HLA-A*0201 and for recognition by specific T cell clones generated from five individuals. Although these variants were widely recognized, they differed by up to 10,000-fold in terms of variant peptide concentrations required for lysis of target cells. A comparison of viral sequences derived from 10 HLA-A*0201-positive individuals to sequences obtained from 11 HLA-A*0201-negative individuals demonstrated only weak evidence for immune selective pressure and thus question the in vivo efficacy of immunodominant CTL responses present during chronic HIV-1 infection.


C Brander, K E Hartman, A K Trocha, N G Jones, R P Johnson, B Korber, P Wentworth, S P Buchbinder, S Wolinsky, B D Walker, S A Kalams


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