TCR clonotypes: molecular determinants of T-cell efficacy against HIV.
Many of the factors that contribute to CD8+ T cell immunodominance hierarchies during viral infection are known. However, the functional differences that exist between dominant and subdominant epitope-specific CD8+ T cells remain poorly understood. In this study, we characterized the phenotypic and functional differences between dominant and subdominant simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) epitope-specific CD8+ T cells restricted by the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I allele Mamu-A*01 during acute and chronic SIV infection. Whole genome expression analyses during acute infection revealed that dominant SIV epitope-specific CD8+ T cells had a gene expression profile consistent with greater maturity and higher cytotoxic potential than subdominant epitope-specific CD8+ T cells. Flow-cytometric measurements of protein expression and anti-viral functionality during chronic infection confirmed these phenotypic and functional differences. Expression analyses of exhaustion-associated genes indicated that LAG-3 and CTLA-4 were more highly expressed in the dominant epitope-specific cells during acute SIV infection. Interestingly, only LAG-3 expression remained high during chronic infection in dominant epitope-specific cells. We also explored the binding interaction between peptide:MHC (pMHC) complexes and their cognate TCRs to determine their role in the establishment of immunodominance hierarchies. We found that epitope dominance was associated with higher TCR:pMHC affinity. These studies demonstrate that significant functional differences exist between dominant and subdominant epitope-specific CD8+ T cells within MHC-restricted immunodominance hierarchies and suggest that TCR:pMHC affinity may play an important role in determining the frequency and functionality of these cell populations. These findings advance our understanding of the regulation of T cell immunodominance and will aid HIV vaccine design.