• T helper epitope;
  • HIV;
  • Chimeric antigen;
  • Repertoire selection;
  • Antigen processing


T helper (Th) epitopes can be included in a recombinant protein with B and CTL epitopes to create more effective immunogens. To determine whether the antigenicity of HIV Th epitopes is preserved in this altered molecular context, human Th clones specific for peptides of HIV gp120 and reverse transcriptase p66 were challenged with recombinant proteins carrying the antigenic epitopes in different sites. We found that a given epitope was recognized by a specific T cell clone only when it was inserted in a particular position of the carrier. However, the permissive position was not the same for all epitopes. Enzymatic excision from a nonpermissive context or insertion of a polyserine spacer between the epitope and the carrier restored antigenicity. Nevertheless, antigenicity was not abolished in a synthetic peptide encompassing the epitope and the neighboring residues from the nonpermissive location. These data suggest that, in this case, the primary sequence of the chimeric protein flanking the HIV peptide is not responsible for loss of antigenicity. Furthermore, constructs carrying the epitope in a given position were recognized by peptide-specific Th clones raised from some individuals, but not from others. We show that this is due neither to individual modes of processing nor to the use of distinct major histocompatibility complex MHC class II restriction elements, but rather that it is related to the fine specificity of the clones. To study the effect of epitope context on selection of T cell repertoire in a naive individual, T cell lines were generated in vitro by stimulation with different peptide constructs. This resulted in the induction of diverse clonotypes defined by the pattern of recognition of different constructs, by T cell receptor Vβ gene usage and by fine epitope mapping.