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BACKGROUND: 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. CONCLUSIONS: 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.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Med

Publication Date





Cohort Studies, Epitopes, Female, Genetic Variation, Genotype, HIV Core Protein p24, HIV Infections, HIV-1, HLA-C Antigens, Humans, Immune Evasion, Killer Cells, Natural, Male, RNA, Viral, Receptors, KIR2DL3, Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction, Sequence Analysis, RNA, South Africa, gag Gene Products, Human Immunodeficiency Virus