The fusogenic (F) domain of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) gp41 envelope (env) protein has sequence similarities to many virus and mediates the fusion of HIV-infected cells. During a survey of the immunogenicity of HIV env peptides in chimpanzees, we have observed that HIV peptide immunogenicity was dramatically altered by the NH2-terminal synthesis of the gp41 F domain to an otherwise immunogenic peptide. We compared two hybrid peptide types comprised of T helper (Th) and B cell epitopes of HIV gp120 env protein for their immunogenicity in chimpanzees. The Th-B epitope hybrid peptides contained the HIV gp120 Th cell determinant, T1 (amino acids [aa] 428-440)-synthesized NH2 terminal to gp120 V3 loop peptides, which contain B cell epitopes that induce anti-HIV-neutralizing antibodies (SP10IIIB [aa 303-321] and SP10IIIB [A] [aa 303-327]). The F-Th-B peptide contained the HIV gp41 F domain of HIVIIIB gp41 (aa 519-530)-synthesized NH2 terminal to the Th-B peptide. Whereas Th-B peptides were potent immunogens for chimpanzee antibody and T cell-proliferative responses, the F-Th-B peptide induced lower anti-HIV gp120 T and B cell responses. Moreover, immunization of chimpanzees with F-Th-B peptide but not Th-B peptides induced a significant decrease in peripheral blood T lymphocytes (mean decrease during immunization, 52%; p < 0.02). Chimpanzees previously immunized with F-Th-B peptide did not respond well to immunization with Th-B peptide with T or B cell responses to HIV peptides, demonstrating that the F-Th-B peptide induced immune hyporesponsiveness to Th and B HIV gp120 env determinants. These observations raise the hypothesis that the HIV gp41 env F domain may be a biologically active immunoregulatory peptide in vivo, and by an as yet uncharacterized mechanism, promotes primate immune system hyporesponsiveness to otherwise immunogenic peptides.

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