A vaccination strategy designed to enhance the immunogenicity of self-antigens that are overexpressed in tumor cells is to identify and slightly modify immunodominant epitopes that elicit T-cell responses. The resultant T cells, however, must maintain their ability to recognize the native configuration of the peptide-MHC interaction on the tumor cell target. We used a strategy to enhance the immunogenicity of a human CTL epitope directed against a human self-antigen, which involved the modification of individual amino acid residues predicted to interact with the T-cell receptor; this strategy, moreover, required no prior knowledge of these actual specific interactions. Single amino acid substitutions were introduced to the CAP1 peptide (YLSGANLNL), an immunogenic HLA-A2+-binding peptide derived from human carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). In this study, four amino acid residues that were predicted to potentially interact with the T-cell receptor of CAP1-specific CTLs were systematically replaced. Analogues were tested for binding to HLA-A2 and for recognition by an established CTL line directed against CAP1. This line was obtained from peripheral blood mononuclear cells from an HLA-A2+ individual vaccinated with a vaccinia-CEA recombinant. An analogue peptide was identified that was capable of sensitizing CAP1-specific CTLs 102–103 times more efficiently than the native CAP1 peptide. This enhanced recognition was shown not to be due to better binding to HLA-A2. Therefore, the analogue CAP1-6D (YLSGADLNL, Asn at position 6 replaced by Asp) meets the criteria of a CTL enhancer agonist peptide. Both the CAP1-6D and the native CAP1 peptide were compared for the ability to generate specific CTL lines in vitro from unimmunized apparently healthy HLA-A2+ donors. Whereas CAP1 failed to generate CTLs from normal peripheral blood mononuclear cells, the agonist peptide was able to generate CD8+ CTL lines that recognized both the agonist and the native CAP1 sequence. Most importantly, these CTLs were capable of lysing human tumor cells endogenously expressing CEA. The use of enhancer agonist CTL peptides may thus represent a new efficient direction for immunotherapy protocols.

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