- Open Access
The intracellular detection of MIP-1beta enhances the capacity to detect IFN-gamma mediated HIV-1-specific CD8 T-cell responses in a flow cytometric setting providing a sensitive alternative to the ELISPOT
- Sarah Kutscher1,
- Claudia J Dembek1,
- Simone Allgayer2, 3,
- Silvia Heltai4, 5,
- Birgit Stadlbauer2, 8,
- Priscilla Biswas6,
- Silvia Nozza7,
- Giuseppe Tambussi7,
- Johannes R Bogner9,
- Hans J Stellbrink10,
- Frank D Goebel9,
- Paolo Lusso4,
- Marco Tinelli11,
- Guido Poli5, 12,
- Volker Erfle1, 2,
- Heike Pohla2, 8,
- Mauro Malnati4 and
- Antonio Cosma1, 2Email author
© Kutscher et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 01 September 2008
Accepted: 06 October 2008
Published: 06 October 2008
T-cell mediated immunity likely plays an important role in controlling HIV-1 infection and progression to AIDS. Several candidate vaccines against HIV-1 aim at stimulating cellular immune responses, either alone or together with the induction of neutralizing antibodies, and assays able to measure CD8 and CD4 T-cell responses need to be implemented. At present, the IFN-γ-based ELISPOT assay is considered the gold standard and it is broadly preferred as primary assay for detection of antigen-specific T-cell responses in vaccine trials. However, in spite of its high sensitivity, the measurement of the sole IFN-γ production provides limited information on the quality of the immune response. On the other hand, the introduction of polychromatic flow-cytometry-based assays such as the intracellular cytokine staining (ICS) strongly improved the capacity to detect several markers on a single cell level.
The cumulative analysis of 275 samples from 31 different HIV-1 infected individuals using an ICS staining procedure optimized by our laboratories revealed that, following antigenic stimulation, IFN-γ producing T-cells were also producing MIP-1β whereas T-cells characterized by the sole production of IFN-γ were rare. Since the analysis of the combination of two functions decreases the background and the measurement of the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ T-cells was equivalent to the measurement of the total IFN-γ+ T-cells, we adopted the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data analysis system to evaluate IFN-γ-based, antigen-specific T-cell responses. Comparison of our ICS assay with ELISPOT assays performed in two different experienced laboratories demonstrated that the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data analysis system increased the sensitivity of the ICS up to levels comparable to the sensitivity of the ELISPOT assay.
The IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data evaluation system provides a clear advantage for the detection of low magnitude HIV-1-specific responses. These results are important to guide the choice for suitable highly sensitive immune assays and to build reagent panels able to accurately characterize the phenotype and function of responding T-cells. More importantly, the ICS assay can be used as primary assay to evaluate HIV-1-specific responses without losing sensitivity in comparison to the ELISPOT assay.
Vaccine development has become more complex in the last decades, pursuing new strategies for stimulating immune responses against infectious agents of viral, bacterial or parasitic origin as well as against cancer. A striking example is the long-winded search for an effective HIV-1 vaccine that would be crucial, together with antiretroviral therapy, to limit and possibly stop the worldwide AIDS pandemic. Several candidate HIV-1 vaccines that aim to stimulate cellular immune responses have been tested in phase I and II clinical trials [1–3]. An accurate evaluation of the cellular immune response will be key to select vaccine candidates for successive phase III clinical trials. Therefore, methods that qualify and quantify antigen-specific, functional T cells in a precise, sensitive, and robust way will be essential. At present, the standard assays that are commonly used for this purpose are IFN-γ ELISPOT, HLA class I and class II multimer staining and ICS. The ELISPOT assay is currently considered the gold standard in vaccine trials due to its sensitivity and extensive standardization and validation [4–7]. In fact, several reports demonstrated that the ELISPOT assay is more sensitive in detecting weak responses when compared to the ICS assay [8–11], a feature that represents an important advantage for the detection and measurement of the immune response in vaccine trials . The most commonly used ELISPOT assay measures IFN-γ secretion by total PBMC stimulated by specific antigens. Albeit ELISPOT assays being able to measure the secretion of two different cytokines have been recently established , it is unlikely that future development will increase the simultaneous measurement of cytokines for this kind of assays. On the other hand, the introduction of new reagents, instruments and software, strongly improved the capacity of flow cytometry based assays such ICS and multimer staining to simultaneously measure several parameters in the same sample [14–16]. However, between ICS and multimer staining, the former seems to be more suited to be employed in vaccine trials since it does not require previous HLA typing and a priori knowledge of specific epitopes [17, 18]. Hence, it is generally accepted that ICS provides more information regarding the quality of the immune response whereas ELISPOT grants a high capacity of detecting low magnitude responses, while multimer staining is the method of choice for a detailed analysis of the immune response in a selected and limited number of samples.
In spite of an intense activity in the development and testing of new vaccines against HIV-1, clear immunological correlates of protection do not still exist although there is strong evidence that CD4 and CD8 T-cells play a role in the control of viral replication . However, neither the magnitude of the immune response (measured as production of IFN-γ) nor the breadth of the recognised epitopes constitute per se valid correlates of protection [20–22]. Recently, studies have shown that polyfunctional CD8 T-cell responses are preferentially observed in long term non-progressors (LTNP) when compared to persons with progressive disease . Furthermore, antigen-specific terminally differentiated CD8 T-cells, defined by the lineage markers CCR7 and CD45RA, have been preferentially found in long-term non-progressors  and early infections with future control of HIV-1 viremia . These findings highlight the importance of developing assays able to simultaneously measure several parameters in the same sample and strongly suggest the use of flow cytometry to monitor immune responses.
In this regard, we have developed a 9-colour ICS that allows the simultaneous determination of the function and the memory phenotype of antigen specific CD4 and CD8 T-cells. The assay has the capacity to detect the cytokines IFN-γ and IL-2, the chemokine MIP-1β and the activation marker CD154. For the characterization of the memory phenotype, we used CD45RA, an isoform of a membrane phosphatase that is expressed by both naïve and terminally differentiated T-cells . Here, we compared the sensitivity of our recently established 9-colour ICS with ELISPOT assays performed in two different experienced laboratories. In our experimental setting, taking advantage of the simultaneous detection of IFN-γ and MIP-1β producing T-cells, we demonstrated a similar or superior capacity of our ICS assay to detect low magnitude IFN-γ-mediated responses.
The simultaneous evaluation of IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ T-cells increases the capacity to detect IFN-γ responses in ICS
Characteristics of the peptide pools used in this study
# of peptides
Since the numbers of IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ T-cells were essentially equivalent to those of total IFN-γ+ T-cells whereas the background was strongly decreased in the former, we made the assumption that the evaluation of double positive IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ T-cells could represent an interesting option to increase the sensitivity of the ICS assay in the detection of IFN-γ mediated HIV-1-specific responses.
Evaluation of IFN-γ+ MIP1β+ cells increases the sensitivity of the ICS in comparison to the ELISPOT
ICS is generally considered less sensitive than ELISPOT in detecting low magnitude responses [8–10]. Therefore, we tested whether the simultaneous detection of MIP-1β and IFN-γ might increase its sensitivity in comparison to two ELISPOT assays performed in independent laboratories. Each laboratory used its own ELISPOT method, including a different ELISPOT reader and a different procedure to determine positive responses (see Methods). To facilitate the comparison with the ELISPOT, ICS results were expressed as the sum of the CD8 and CD4 responses and a response in ICS was considered positive when a CD8 or a CD4 response was scored as positive.
Laboratory 2 analyzed 29 samples obtained from 3 HIV-1 infected subjects stimulated with 18 different peptide formulations derived from 5 HIV-1 proteins using an ELISPOT assay approved by the Cancer Vaccine Consortium . As observed in the results generated from the first laboratory, the correlation with the ELISPOT results was significant for both ICS methodologies (Figure 5B). A total of 29 positive responses were detected by ELISPOT, while 27 and 20 positive responses were detected by ICS using the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ and the total IFN-γ+ methods, respectively. Only 2 positive responses were lost by the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data evaluation system, whereas 9 responses were lost by the total IFN-γ+ data evaluation system in comparison to the ELISPOT performed in laboratory 2. These combined results of the 2 laboratories demonstrated that the new evaluation method based on the simultaneous detection of IFN-γ and MIP-1β increased the capacity of the ICS to detect low-magnitude responses.
Influence of the variation in cell number input in the ICS assay
In the present study, we provide experimental evidence in support of a combined 9-colour IFN-γ and MIP-1β ICS method that, unlike commonly used methods based on the flow-cytometric detection of IFN-γ, achieves sensitivity comparable to that typical of ELISPOT assays.
ELISPOT and ICS assays are widely used to measure specific immune responses in different experimental settings. IFN-γ ELISPOT is considered the gold standard for the evaluation of the immune response in vaccination trials even though accumulating evidence demonstrates that the measurement of a single immunological marker does not provide sufficient information about the efficacy of a specific immune response [9, 28, 29]. In addition, recent disappointing results of phase III efficacy HIV-1 vaccination trials  underscored the need for a better evaluation of the immune response in phase I and II clinical trials. A supporting issue in favour of the use of the IFN-γ ELISPOT as primary assay in vaccine trials is its supposed higher sensitivity in comparison to other immune monitoring assays such as ICS [8–10, 12]. Here, we demonstrated that the use of a combined detection of IFN-γ and MIP-1β could scale-up the sensitivity of ICS assays to levels comparable to those of IFN-γ-based ELISPOT. In this regard, the key observation is that the majority of the IFN-γ producing T-cells are simultaneously producing MIP-1β rendering this new modality of evaluation equivalent to the measurement of the total IFN-γ producing T-cells with the relevant advantage of a consistent decrease of the background that in turn increases the sensitivity of the assay.
It is unlikely that the increased sensitivity of the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data evaluation is due to false positive detections, since simultaneous unspecific binding of two antibodies to the same cell is less probable than unspecific binding of a single antibody. In addition, the majority of samples scored as positive with the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data evaluation were scored as positive using the ELISPOT as well, indicating that the increased sensitivity was not due to a higher number of false positive detections but due to a better capacity of the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ data evaluation to discriminate positive responses in comparison to the total IFN-γ+ data evaluation.
Our results provide support for an expanded use of polychromatic flow cytometry as primary assay in vaccine trials. The ICS method optimized in our laboratory allows the simultaneous measurement of several fluorescence markers without losing sensitivity in comparison to the gold standard IFN-γ ELISPOT. In our setting, we used a 9 colour ICS; however, the same method can be applied to any staining combination including IFN-γ and MIP-1β in combination with the appropriate lineage markers. Thus, for investigators with no access to sophisticated flow cytometers, a simplified panel can be used for immune-monitoring purpose as alternative to the ELISPOT not losing sensitivity and with the advantage to discriminate CD4 and CD8 mediated responses. In alternative, more complex staining combinations could be designed for laboratory facilities where complex instrumentation is available, provided the inclusion of the simultaneous measurement of IFN-γ and MIP-1β.
Our present study was limited to the analysis of the HIV-1-specific T-cell responses. Nevertheless, this method can be extended to other specific immune responses if T-cells expressing IFN-γ and MIP-1β represent the majority of the total IFN-γ producing T-cells. In this regard, a possible extension of our methodology is the coupling of an activation marker (i.e. CD69, CD154, etc.) to the measurement of cytokines or chemokines (i.e, IFN-γ, IL-2 and MIP-1β). As a general rule, targeting 2 or more molecules on the same cell population should increase the sensitivity of the assay for the selected cell population. Since flow cytometry has been recently advanced by the development of new instrumentation and reagents, the inclusion of more markers in a single sample should aim not only to increase the amount of information per cell but also to increase the sensitivity for populations of special interest.
Finally, in the present study we demonstrate that the number of cells used in each sample does not affect the readout of the ICS. Since the procedure of manual cell counting is a usual source of experimental error and the number of cells directly affects the ELISPOT readout, our data support the concept of a reduced experimental error associated with the use of ICS assays and strengthens the idea to apply ICS as primary assay in vaccine trials.
The simultaneous detection of IFN-γ and MIP-1β provides a clear advantage for the detection of low HIV-1 specific responses compared to the classical way to analyze the total IFN-γ producing T-cells by ICS. The comparison with the results generated by ELISPOT independently by two experienced laboratories demonstrates that the combined IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ evaluation system allows for the detection of low HIV-1 specific IFN-γ responses to a similar or even higher extent, as they can be detected using ELISPOT assays. The application of the IFN-γ+ MIP-1β+ method in other diseases and immunological fields remains to be assessed. These findings are important to guide the choice for suitable immune assays and to build reagent panels able to accurately characterize the phenotype and function of responding T-cells in a highly sensitive way.
PBMC obtained from 31 HIV-1 infected individuals were analyzed in the present study. Their median CD4 T-cell count was 502 cells/μl (range 229 to 1,042). Twenty-one study subjects were under antiretroviral therapy and 16 of them had undetectable viral load. When detectable the median viral load was 2,581 RNA copies/ml (range 151 to 50,577). Six of the study subjects under antiretroviral therapy with undetectable (< 50 copies of RNA/ml) viral load underwent treatment interruption and their range of viremia was then from 600 to 49,600 RNA copies/ml at the time of sampling.
As shown in Table 1, nine different HIV-1 derived peptide pools were used to stimulate PBMC: (1) 20-mer peptides overlapping by 10 amino acids spanning the HIV-1 LAI Nef protein; (2) 20-mer peptides overlapping by 10 amino acids spanning the HIV-1 LAI Tat protein; (3) 20-mer peptides overlapping by 10 amino acids spanning the HIV-1 LAI Rev protein; (4) 20-mer peptides overlapping by 10 amino acids spanning the HIV-1 LAI p24 protein; (5) 15-mer peptides overlapping by 5 amino acids spanning the HIV-1 SF2 p17 protein; (6) pool of 16 Nef derived peptides corresponding to previously described optimal CD8 epitopes ; (7) variable length overlapping peptides spanning the 1 to 96 region of HIV-1 Bru Nef; (8) variable length overlapping peptides spanning the 96 to 205 region of HIV-1 Bru Nef and (9) variable length overlapping peptides spanning HIV-1 BH10 Tat. Pool 1 to 6 and 7 to 9 were previously described by Cosma et al  and Vardas et al. , respectively. Several peptides contained in the pools 7, 8 and 9 were used alone in some experiments. The following peptides corresponding to previously described optimal CD8 epitopes  were also used in some stimulation experiments: FLKEKGGL (FL8), TPGPGVRYPL (TL10), YPLTFGWCY and RRQDILDLWIY (RY11). All the peptide pools were tested for specificity in healthy subjects in previous studies [32, 33].
Intracellular cytokine staining
Cryopreserved PBMC were used for the ICS assay. After thawing, 106 PBMC were resuspended in 150 μl RPMI 1640 (Cambrex, Taufkirchen, Germany) supplemented with 10% FCS. The stimulation was performed with 0.4 μg peptide/106 cells in the presence of 1.3 μg/ml anti CD28 and 1.3 μg/ml anti CD49d costimulatory antibodies (Becton Dickinson, Heidelberg, Germany). Following 60 min incubation, 10 μg/ml of Brefeldin A (Sigma-Aldrich, Taufkirchen, Germany) were added to the cell suspension and the incubation carried out for additional 4 h. Stimulated cells were then resuspended in Stain Buffer (0,2% BSA, 0,09% Na Azide in DPBS; Becton Dickinson) and incubated with the photoreactive fluorescent label ethidium monoazide (EMA; Molecular Probes/Invitrogen, Karlsruhe, Germany) to asses their viability. After washing, cells were fixed and permeabilized using the BD Cytofix/Cytoperm™ Kit (Becton Dickinson). Then, the following fluorochrome-conjugated antibodies were added: CD8-PacB (DAKO cytomation, Hamburg, Germany), CD3-AmCyan, CD4-PerCP, CD45RA-PECy7, CD154-FITC, IFN-γ-Al700, IL-2-APC and MIP1β-PE (Becton Dickinson). Incubation was carried out on ice for 30 min and after washing, cells were acquired using an LSRII flow cytometer (Becton Dickinson) equipped with a high throughput system. Sample analysis was performed using FlowJo version 8.5.3 (Tree Star, Ashland, OR). The gating strategy is shown in Additional file 1. Lymphocytes were gated on a forward scatter area versus side scatter area pseudo-colour dot plot and dead cells were removed according to EMA staining. CD3+ events were gated versus IFN-γ, IL-2, MIP-1β and CD154 to account for down-regulation. CD3+ events were then combined together using the Boolean operator "Or". The same procedure was used to subsequently gate CD8+ events. CD4+ events were excluded before creating a gate for each function or phenotype. After background subtraction, the 90 percentile of the negative values was calculated and this value was considered as a threshold. Samples were considered positive when higher than the threshold and at least 2 times higher than their respective mock stimulated control.
ELISPOT assay (laboratory 1)
Laboratory 1 used the TriSpot™ Human IFN-γ/IL-2 ELISPOT Kit (Endogen, Rockford, IL/USA) according to the manufacturer instructions. Briefly, PBMC from ACD whole blood were separated on Lymphoprep™ (Axis-Shield PoC, Oslo, Norway), washed in RPMI medium (RPMI 1640, supplemented with 100 U/ml penicillin, 100 μg/ml streptomycin and 2 mM L-glutamine, all from BioWhittaker Europe, Verviers, Belgium) and counted by Trypan Blue exclusion for assessing viability. After resuspension in complete medium (RPMI medium supplemented with 10% heat inactivated fetal bovine serum, BioWhittaker), PBMC were transferred to the ELISPOT plate with a concentration of 0.8 to 2 × 105cells/well in duplicate. Peptides were added at a final concentration of 3 μg/ml each. PBMC in medium alone or stimulated with phytohemagglutinin (PHA-P, Sigma) at 5 μg/ml were used as negative and positive controls, respectively. Incubation was carried out at 37°C in a 5% CO2 incubator for 18 hours. The resulting spots were counted using the Automated ELISA-Spot Assay Video Analysis System Eli-Scan with the software Eli.Analyse V4.2 (A.EL.VIS, Hannover, Germany). PBMC from each study subject were mock stimulated in duplicate and the mean background value subtracted from the mean of the duplicate samples. Responses were empirically scored as positive when the stimulated sample minus background value was > 50 SFU per 106 PBMC and higher than the mean value of the negative controls plus 2 standard deviations. Only spots positive for IFN-γ production were taken in consideration for the present study.
ELISPOT assay (laboratory 2)
Frozen PBMC were thawed, washed with CTL Wash™ Supplement culture medium (Cellular Technology Ltd., Cleveland, Ohio) plus benzonase nuclease (50 U/ml; Novagen, Madison, WI), rested for 3 h at 37°C, counted and seeded at 1 to 2 × 105 cells in triplicates on antibody precoated PVDF plates (Mabtech AB, Nacka, Sweden). The capture antibody (Mabtech) was the IFN-γ-specific clone 1-D1K. Beforehand, the plates were incubated at 37°C in RPMI 1640 culture medium supplemented with 2 mM L-glutamine, 1 mM sodium pyruvate, penicillin/streptomycin (100 U/ml) and 10% human AB serum (BioWhittaker, Verviers, Belgium) to block unspecific binding. The PBMC were stimulated directly with different peptides and peptide pools (2 μg/ml), and assessed in the ELISPOT assay after 24 h of culture in CTL Test™ medium. The development of the spots was performed as described previously  with the following exceptions: the plates were extensively washed first with PBS/0.05% Tween20, then with only PBS, incubated with a directly streptavidin-alkaline phosphatase (ALP) conjugated biotinylated detection antibody clone 7-B6-1 (Mabtech), washed again and a ready-to-use BCIP/NBT-plus substrate solution was used (Mabtech). Spots were counted using the AID reader system ELR03 with the software version 4.0 (AID Autoimmun Diagnostika GmbH, Strassberg, Germany). Responses were scored as positive if the test wells contained a mean number of spot-forming units (SFU) higher than the mean value plus 2 standard deviations in negative control wells. The present ELISPOT standard operation procedure was approved by the international panel analysis of the Cancer Vaccine Consortium .
All statistical tests were performed with PRISM® 5.01 (GraphPad Software Inc., San Diego, CA). The significance level was 0.05 for all statistical tests.
This work was supported by the AIDS Vaccine Integrated Project (AVIP; contract LSHP-CT-2004-503487) and by the VI° Italian National AIDS research program of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy. Peptides were provided by the Centre for AIDS reagents through the EU Program EVA Centre for AIDS Reagents, NIBSC, UK. We thank Prof. Ulrike Protzer and Prof. Dolores Schendel for their valuable support.
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