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A flat vector illustration of a syringe and bottle containing a vaccine for HIV with viruses floating in the background.
In most people, HIV continues to replicate and damage more and more CD4+ T cells unless controlled by antiretroviral therapy.

Understanding CD8+ T-Cell Activity May Augment HIV Vaccine Efficacy

Study suggests greater CD8+ T-cell activity may increase HIV immunity

National Institutes of Health
Published:Dec 14, 2023
|2 min read
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An effective HIV vaccine may need to prompt strong responses from CD8+ T cells to protect people from acquiring HIV, according to a new study from researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and colleagues. The study findings, appearing in Science, draw comparisons between the immune system activity of past HIV vaccine study participants and people with HIV who naturally keep the virus from replicating even in the absence of antiretroviral therapy (ART). The latter individuals are often called “long-term nonprogressors” or “elite controllers” (LTNPs/ECs).

When HIV enters the body, the virus begins to damage the immune system by inserting itself into CD4+ T cells. In most people, HIV continues to replicate and damage more and more CD4+ T cells unless controlled by ART. Among LTNPs/ECs, the immune system appears to promptly recognize CD4+ cells with HIV and activate other immune cells: The CD8+ T cells. CD8+ T cells destroy CD4+ cells with HIV, suppressing HIV in a person’s blood.

What makes an HIV vaccine effective?

The aim of an effective HIV vaccine is to provide durable protective immunity to HIV, or if initial defenses are bypassed, to help control HIV in the body long term, as happens with LTNPs/ECs. Although several preventive HIV vaccine candidates have been designed to stimulate CD8+ T-cell activity, they did not prevent HIV acquisition or control viral replication in clinical trials. Understanding and addressing this lack of effect is a scientific priority of HIV vaccine research.

Scientists in the HIV-Specific Immunity Section of NIAID’s Laboratory of Immunoregulation and colleagues designed their study to better understand which CD8+ T-cell functions were lacking in previous HIV vaccine recipients. They compared laboratory samples from previous HIV vaccine study participants with samples from LTNPs/ECs. They found that both HIV vaccine recipients and LTNPs/ECs generated large numbers of CD8+ T cells that recognized HIV. However, unlike the CD8+ T cells of LTNPs/ECs, HIV vaccine recipients’ CD8+ T cells failed to deliver the proteins necessary to destroy HIV-infected CD4+ T cells with HIV.

Impact of reduced T-cell receptor sensitivity

Further tests suggested this dampened response was due to reduced sensitivity to HIV of vaccine recipients’ CD8+ T cell receptors that detect CD4+ T cells with HIV. This reduced T-cell receptor sensitivity suggests the vaccine candidates from several prior studies did not sufficiently stimulate the maturation of CD8+ T cells to recognize, reach, and destroy all CD4+ T cells with HIV in a person’s body.

According to the authors, the study suggests that future HIV vaccine candidates may be more successful if they include additional doses or persist in the body to further stimulate the immune system. They also write that the potential of an HIV vaccine might be better judged by measuring how it affects CD8T-cell function and sensitivity in addition to just assessing the number of CD8+ T cells generated, which has been the usual practice.

- This press release was originally published on the National Institutes of Health website