An international team of researchers is harnessing the immune system to reveal new clues that may help in efforts to produce an HIV vaccine.
SFU professor Mark Brockman and co-authors from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa have identified a connection between infection control and how well antiviral T cells respond to diverse HIV sequences. According to Brockman, HIV adapts to the human immune system by altering its sequence to evade helpful antiviral T cells.
He said, “So to develop an effective HIV vaccine, we need to generate host immune responses that the virus cannot easily evade.” Brockman's team has developed new laboratory-based methods for identifying antiviral T cells and assessing their ability to recognise diverse HIV sequences.
"T cells are white blood cells that can recognise foreign particles called peptide antigens," said Brockman, adding that there are two major types of T cells, those that 'help' other cells of the immune system and those that kill infected cells and tumours.
Identifying the T cells that attack HIV antigens sounds simple, but Brockman said three biological factors are critical to a T cell-mediated immune response. And in HIV infection, all three are highly genetically diverse.
Furthermore, since HIV is highly diverse and evolves constantly during untreated infection, the peptide antigen sequence also changes. However, Brockman adds that their understanding of T cell responses will be incomplete until they know more about the antiviral activity of individual T cells that contribute to this response.
The study demonstrates that individual T cells differ widely in their ability to recognise peptide variants and suggests that these differences may be clinically significant in the context of a diverse or rapidly evolving pathogen such as HIV.
Much work needs to be done to create an effective vaccine. However, says Brockman, "Comprehensive methods to assess the ability of T cells to recognise diverse HIV sequences, such as those reported in this study, provide critical information to help design and test new vaccine strategies."