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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Sep 18;104(38):15105-10. Epub 2007 Sep 10.

Envelope variation as a primary determinant of lentiviral vaccine efficacy.

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Center for Vaccine Research, Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15261, USA.


Lentiviral envelope antigenic variation and associated immune evasion are believed to present major obstacles to effective vaccine development. Although this perception is widely assumed by the scientific community, there is, to date, no rigorous experimental data assessing the effect of increasing levels of lentiviral Env variation on vaccine efficacy. It is our working hypothesis that Env is, in fact, a primary determinant of vaccine effectiveness. We previously reported that a successful experimental attenuated equine infectious anemia virus vaccine, derived by mutation of the viral S2 accessory gene, provided 100% protection from disease after virulent virus challenge. Here, we sought to comprehensively test our hypothesis by challenging vaccinated animals with proviral strains of defined, increasing Env variation, using variant envelope SU genes that arose naturally during experimental infection of ponies with equine infectious anemia virus. The reference attenuated vaccine combined with these variant Env challenge strains facilitated evaluation of the protection conferred by ancestral immunogens, because the Env of the attenuated vaccine is a direct ancestor to the variant proviral strain Envs. The results demonstrated that ancestral Env proteins did not impart broad levels of protection against challenge. Furthermore, the results displayed a significant inverse linear correlation of Env divergence and protection from disease. This study demonstrates potential obstacles to the use of single isolate ancestral Env immunogens. Finally, these findings reveal that relatively minor Env variation can pose a substantial challenge to lentiviral vaccine immunity, even when attenuated vaccines are used that, to date, achieve the highest levels of vaccine protection.

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