Identification of immunodominant hepatitis C virus (HCV)-specific cytotoxic T-cell epitopes by stimulation with endogenously synthesized HCV antigens



Hepatitis C virus (HCV)-specific CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) are believed to play an important role in the pathogenesis of liver cell injury and viral clearance in HCV infection. Because HCV does not efficiently infect human cells in vitro and primary infected hepatocytes cannot be used as stimulator/target cells for CTL analysis, development of efficient systems to activate and expand CTL in vitro, reproducing antigen presentation to CTL occurring during natural infection, is mandatory to study CTL activity and to define the hierarchy of immunodominance of CTL epitopes. To achieve this goal, 5 different defective adenoviruses carrying structural and nonstructural HCV genes (core, core-E1-E2, E2, NS3-NS4A, NS3-NS5A) were used to induce the endogenous synthesis of HCV proteins in human adherent mononuclear cells in vitro and to allow their entry into the HLA class I cytosolic pathway of antigen processing. The cytolytic activity of peripheral blood lympho-mononuclear cells (PBMC) from HLA-A2+ HCV-infected patients stimulated with recombinant adenovirus-infected cells was tested against target cells either pulsed with a panel of synthetic peptides containing the HLA-A2 binding motif or infected with recombinant vaccinia viruses carrying HCV genes. Our study defines a reproducible system to stimulate and expand HCV-specific CTL in vitro that mimics the conditions of antigen encounter in vivo. By this approach, we have identified several HLA-A2–restricted epitopes that should correspond to immunodominant HCV sequences recognized by CTL during natural infection. Therefore, these amino acid sequences represent ideal candidates for the design of therapeutic vaccines for chronic HCV infection.