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J Virol. 2004 Sep;78(17):9174-89.

Codon optimization of the tat antigen of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 generates strong immune responses in mice following genetic immunization.

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Molecular Virology Laboratory, Molecular Biology and Genetics Unit, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Jakkur, Bangalore, India.


DNA vaccines have been successful in eliciting potent immune responses in mice. Their efficiency, however, is restricted in larger animals. One reason for the limited performance of the DNA vaccines is the lack of molecular strategies to enhance immune responses. Additionally, genes directly cloned from pathogenic organisms may not be efficiently translated in a heterologous host expression system as a consequence of codon bias. To evaluate the influence of codon optimization on the immune response, we elected to use the Tat antigens of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) (subtype C) and HIV-2, as these viral antigens are poorly immunogenic in natural infection and in experimental immunization and they are functionally important in viral infectivity and pathogenesis. Substituting codons that are optimally used in the mammalian system, we synthetically assembled Tat genes and compared them with the wild-type counterparts in two different mouse strains. Codon-optimized Tat genes induced qualitatively and quantitatively superior immune responses as measured in a T-cell proliferation assay, enzyme-linked immunospot assay, and chromium release assay. Importantly, while the wild-type genes promoted a mixed Th1-Th2-type cytokine profile, the codon-optimized genes induced a predominantly Th1 profile. Using a pepscan strategy, we mapped an immunodominant T-helper epitope to the core and basic domains of HIV-1 Tat. We also identified cross-clade immune responses between HIV-1 subtype B and C Tat proteins mapped to this T-helper epitope. Developing molecular strategies to optimize the immunogenicity of DNA vaccines is critical for inducing strong immune responses, especially to antigens like Tat. Our identification of a highly conserved T-helper epitope in the first exon of HIV-1 Tat of subtype C and the demonstration of a cross-clade immune response between subtypes B and C are important for a more rational design of an HIV vaccine.

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