Different hepatitis C virus nonstructural protein 3 (Ns3)-DNA–expressing vaccines induce in HLA-A2.1 transgenic mice stable cytotoxic T lymphocytes that target one major epitope



The immunogenicity of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) nonstructural protein 3 (NS3) was investigated using different DNA-based strategies and a preclinical mouse model transgenic for the HLA-A2.1 molecule. Plasmids expressing NS3 either as a wild-type protein, as a fusion with murine lysosome-associated-membrane protein-1 specific sequences, or under the control of the Semliki Forest virus replicase were evaluated in vitro and in vivo. All plasmids were shown to express the expected size protein. These 3 NS3-expressing vaccines induced overall comparable levels of CTLs when measured at different times postvaccination although mice injected with the NS3-LAMP expressing plasmid showed a particularly homogeneous and overall vigorous response (specific lysis ranged from 60% to 90 % for an E:T ratio of 33.3:1 with a mean CTL precursor frequency of 1:2.105 cells). Out of the four HLA-A2.1-restricted NS3 epitopes previously described in HCV infected patients (aa 1073-1081, aa 1406-1415; aa 1169-1177 and aa 1287-1296), the NS3-DNA generated CTLs were predominantly targeted at the aa 1073-1081 epitope. Peptide-based immunization showed that the mouse repertoire was intact for all epitopes tested except one (aa 1287-1296). In conclusion, the 3 NS3-DNA vaccines although based on different mode of action, shared a comparable efficacy at inducing CTL. Surprisingly, the breadth of such response was restricted to a single, major epitope.