Viruses can evade immune surveillance, but the underlying mechanisms are insufficiently understood. Here, we sought to understand the mechanisms by which natural killer (NK) cells recognize HIV-1-infected cells and how this virus can evade NK-cell-mediated immune pressure.
Methods and Findings
Two sequence mutations in p24 Gag associated with the presence of specific KIR/HLA combined genotypes were identified in HIV-1 clade C viruses from a large cohort of infected, untreated individuals in South Africa (n = 392), suggesting viral escape from KIR+ NK cells through sequence variations within HLA class I—presented epitopes. One sequence polymorphism at position 303 of p24 Gag (TGag303V), selected for in infected individuals with both KIR2DL3 and HLA-C*03:04, enabled significantly better binding of the inhibitory KIR2DL3 receptor to HLA-C*03:04-expressing cells presenting this variant epitope compared to the wild-type epitope (wild-type mean 18.01 ± 10.45 standard deviation [SD] and variant mean 44.67 ± 14.42 SD, p = 0.002). Furthermore, activation of primary KIR2DL3+ NK cells from healthy donors in response to HLA-C*03:04+ target cells presenting the variant epitope was significantly reduced in comparison to cells presenting the wild-type sequence (wild-type mean 0.78 ± 0.07 standard error of the mean [SEM] and variant mean 0.63 ± 0.07 SEM, p = 0.012). Structural modeling and surface plasmon resonance of KIR/peptide/HLA interactions in the context of the different viral sequence variants studied supported these results. Future studies will be needed to assess processing and antigen presentation of the investigated HIV-1 epitope in natural infection, and the consequences for viral control.
These data provide novel insights into how viruses can evade NK cell immunity through the selection of mutations in HLA-presented epitopes that enhance binding to inhibitory NK cell receptors. Better understanding of the mechanisms by which HIV-1 evades NK-cell-mediated immune pressure and the functional validation of a structural modeling approach will facilitate the development of novel targeted immune interventions to harness the antiviral activities of NK cells.
An analysis from a cohort in South Africa reveals how the HIV virus may escape NK cell immunity by acquiring mutations in HLA-mediated epitopes, which affect binding to NK cell receptors.
Throughout life, our immune system—a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs—protects us from attack by viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. The body’s first line of defense against these “pathogens” is the innate immune system, a collection of cells and proteins that is always ready to identify and kill a wide range of foreign invaders. As well as directly killing pathogens, the innate immune system activates the adaptive immune response, which recognizes and kills specific pathogens and is responsible for immunological memory. Most pathogens are dispatched quickly and effectively by the two arms of the immune system, but some infectious agents have found ways to evade the immune response. For example, infection with HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS, results in prolonged, continuous viral replication even though the human body mounts a vigorous HIV-1-specific immune response. In large part, HIV-1’s evasion of the immune response reflects its ability to kill virus-specific CD4 lymphocytes, which are needed to help other immune system cells kill HIV-1-infected cells. In addition, the proteins on the surface of HIV-1 that are recognized by the human immune system (viral antigens) frequently acquire changes (mutations) that make it harder for the immune system to clear HIV-1 from the human body.
Why Was This Study Done?
Viruses evade immune surveillance in many ways, and if we understood the mechanisms underlying immune evasion better, it might be possible to develop targeted immune interventions to deal with viruses such as HIV-1. Here, the researchers investigate how natural killer (NK) cells, a type of lymphocyte that is an important component of the innate antiviral immune response, recognize HIV-infected cells and how HIV-1 evades NK-cell-mediated immune pressure. NK cell activation is determined by the integration of inhibitory and activating signals delivered to the cells by several different receptor families, including the family of killer-cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs). KIRs mainly bind to human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I molecules (ligands) on their target cells. HLA class I proteins display fragments (epitopes; peptides recognized by the immune system) of pathogens present in infected cells on the cell surface so that the immune system knows that that cell needs destroying. The binding of distinct KIRs to HLA class I ligands depends on both the sequence of the HLA class I molecule and the sequence of the epitope presented by that HLA class I molecule. Thus, the researchers hypothesized that HIV-1 might evade NK-cell-mediated immune surveillance by acquiring mutations within epitopes presented by HLA class I molecules that enhance the engagement of inhibitory KIRs on NK cells, thereby inhibiting NK cell activity.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
To investigate this model, the researchers asked whether any polymorphisms (naturally occurring genetic variations) in the HIV-1 gene encoding the p24 Gag protein were selected on a population level in HIV-1-infected individuals expressing specific combinations of KIRs and HLA class I ligands. Using statistical methods to identify KIR/HLA combined genotypes in a large group of untreated HIV-1-infected individuals from South Africa, they showed that a specific sequence polymorphism in p24 Gag was selected for in individuals expressing both HLA-C*03:04 and KIR2DL3. Functional studies showed that the selection of this variant HIV-1 epitope resulted in better binding of KIR2DL3, an inhibitory KIR, to HLA-C*03:04 than the wild-type epitope. Moreover, the activation of KIR2DL3-positive NK cells from healthy donors in response to HLA-C*03:04-positive target cells presenting the variant epitope was significantly reduced compared to the activation of KIR2DL3-positive NK cells in response to target cells presenting the wild-type epitope.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Further studies are needed to assess the consequences of this and other viral sequence variants for viral fitness, the processing and presentation of the mutant epitope during natural infections, and the control of HIV-1 replication in patients. However, these findings provide new insights into how HIV-1 (and possibly other viruses that have a high mutation rate) might evade NK cell immunity through the selection of mutations in HLA-presented epitopes that enhance the binding of inhibitory KIRs to HLA class I/peptide complexes. A better understanding of this molecular mechanism for evasion of immune surveillance should facilitate the development of targeted immune interventions (for example, the use of KIR-blocking antibodies, some of which are already being clinically tested for the treatment of cancer) to maximize the antiviral activities of NK cells.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001900.
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases provides a simple description of the human immune system and information on all aspects of HIV infection and AIDS
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on many aspects of HIV/AIDS; Avert also provides personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS
The British Society for Immunology provides short articles about various aspects of immunology, including general information about host–pathogen interactions and immune evasion and specific information about HIV and immune evasion
Wikipedia has pages on natural killer cells, KIRs, and HLA molecules (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)