Primary HIV-1 strains use nef to downmodulate HLA-E surface expression

Academic Article


  • Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) has evolved elaborate ways to evade immune cell recognition, including downregulation of classical HLA class I (HLA-I) from the surfaces of infected cells. Recent evidence identified HLA-E, a nonclassical HLA-I, as an important part of the antiviral immune response to HIV-1. Changes in HLA-E surface levels and peptide presentation can prompt both CD8+ T-cell and natural killer (NK) cell responses to viral infections. Previous studies reported unchanged or increased HLA-E levels on HIV-1-infected cells. Here, we examined HLA-E surface levels following infection of CD4+ T cells with primary HIV-1 strains and observed that a subset downregulated HLA-E. Two primary strains of HIV-1 that induced the strongest reduction in surface HLA-E expression were chosen for further testing. Expression of single Nef or Vpu proteins in a T-cell line, as well as tail swap experiments exchanging the cytoplasmic tail of HLA-A2 with that of HLA-E, demonstrated that Nef modulated HLA-E surface levels and targeted the cytoplasmic tail of HLA-E. Furthermore, infection of primary CD4+ T cells with HIV-1 mutants showed that a lack of functional Nef (and Vpu to some extent) impaired HLA-E downmodulation. Taken together, the results of this study demonstrate for the first time that HIV-1 can downregulate HLA-E surface levels on infected primary CD4+ T cells, potentially rendering them less vulnerable to CD8+ T-cell recognition but at increased risk of NKG2A+ NK cell killing. IMPORTANCE For almost two decades, it was thought that HIV-1 selectively downregulated the highly expressed HLA-I molecules HLA-A and HLA-B from the cell surface in order to evade cytotoxic-T-cell recognition, while leaving HLA-C and HLA-E molecules unaltered. It was stipulated that HIV-1 infection thereby maintained inhibition of NK cells via inhibitory receptors that bind HLA-C and HLA-E. This concept was recently revised when a study showed that primary HIV-1 strains reduce HLA-C surface levels, whereas the cell line-adapted HIV-1 strain NL4-3 lacks this ability. Here, we demonstrate that infection with distinct primary HIV-1 strains results in significant downregulation of surface HLA-E levels. Given the increasing evidence for HLA-E as an important modulator of CD8+ T-cell and NKG2A+ NK cell functions, this finding has substantial implications for future immunomodulatory approaches aimed at harnessing cytotoxic cellular immunity against HIV.
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    Author List

  • Van Stigt Thans T; Akko JI; Niehrs A; Garcia-Beltran WF; Richert L; St├╝rzel CM; Ford CT; Li H; Ochsenbauer C; Kappes JC
  • Volume

  • 93
  • Issue

  • 20