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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1995 Nov 27;772:64-76.

DNA-mediated immunization to the hepatitis B surface antigen. Activation and entrainment of the immune response.

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Department of Molecular Biology, Pasteur Institute, Paris, France.


The use of plasmid vectors expressing the HBsAg, along with improved protocols for transfection of muscle fibers (Refs. 3-6 and Davis et al., this volume), have provided the reagents and methods with which to investigate the characteristics of the strong immune response given by this antigen after DNA-mediated immunization. Analysis of the fine specificity of the humoral response provides support for the idea that the HBsAg-bearing particles are formed such that the B and T epitopes are presented to the immune system in a way resembling that of the natural viral or subviral particles. As shown here and elsewhere, DNA-mediated immunization with the HBsAg-expressing plasmid vectors induces strong CTL responses as well as a dominant Th1 phenotype among the splenic lymphocytes of immunized mice. The Th1 cytokine profile can be obtained in two different strains of mice and with two types of proteins, HBsAg and beta-galactosidase. One important line of investigation in the future will be to determine the mechanism of this generic Th1 response to DNA-based immunization. Circumstantial evidence, discussed by Pisetsky et al. (this volume), suggests that the chemical nature of DNA may play a role as an adjuvant (see also Ref. 31), and this hypothesis to explain the cytokine profiles observed after DNA-mediated immunization must now be taken seriously. All the questions raised by this novel method of immunization are of interest for the design of future vaccines, even if DNA itself is ultimately not the vaccinating moiety. The question of antigen presentation is particularly intriguing, since the small amounts of protein produced by DNA-mediated immunization (on the order of nanograms) are capable of inducing strong immune responses at the level of B and T cells. Although initially it seemed obvious that endogenous protein synthesis in cells transfected with plasmid DNA would account for the observed induction of CTL activity, this idea must be examined in light of two well established sets of experimental results. First, the primary events in activation of CD8+ (as well as CD4+) T lymphocytes normally require professional APC capable of furnishing co-stimulatory signals to supplement the consequences of interaction of the T-cell receptor with MHC surface molecules. Second, endogenous synthesis and processing is not the only mechanism of class I epitope presentation, and numerous examples are now known whereby particulate exogenous proteins, such as HBsAg, can be taken up and processed in such a way as to allow class I presentation of peptides. Consideration of these two points suggests that a major contribution to the observed CTL induction afforded by DNA-mediated immunization could come from the sustained presence of the antigenic protein in interstitial spaces or in the circulation, coupled with the ability of the exogenous protein to be processed for class I presentation. This could be true for many other proteins in addition to the HBsAg. This hypothesis eliminates the inconvenient notion that muscle fibers (or other nonleukocyte cells) present antigen in a way compatible with primary activation of T cells. However, muscle tissue can be an important reservoir of the antigen because of the potential for prolonged synthesis of the protein; this could therefore explain the immune entrainment observed after DNA-mediated immunization. Muscle fibers or other cells could also serve to present class I epitopes for the purpose of restimulating and thus expanding the pool of activated CD8+ T lymphocytes. These explanations, though certainly plausible, will require experimental investigation. The small numbers of the transfected cells in vivo, as well as the potential mobility of transfected cells other than muscle fibers, may well render such experimentation difficult. DNA-mediated immunization clearly offers opportunities for obtaining novel insights into immunological mechanisms and immunization processes. It is also likely to promote vacc.

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