Pooled-Peptide Epitope Mapping Strategies Are Efficient and Highly Sensitive: An Evaluation of Methods for Identifying Human T Cell Epitope Specificities in Large-Scale HIV Vaccine Efficacy Trials Academic Article uri icon


  • The interferon gamma, enzyme-linked immunospot (IFN-γ ELISpot) assay is widely used to identify viral antigen-specific T cells is frequently employed to quantify T cell responses in HIV vaccine studies. It can be used to define T cell epitope specificities using panels of peptide antigens, but with sample and cost constraints there is a critical need to improve the efficiency of epitope mapping for large and variable pathogens. We evaluated two epitope mapping strategies, based on group testing, for their ability to identify vaccine-induced T-cells from participants in the Step HIV-1 vaccine efficacy trial, and compared the findings to an approach of assaying each peptide individually. The group testing strategies reduced the number of assays required by >7-fold without significantly altering the accuracy of T-cell breadth estimates. Assays of small pools containing 7–30 peptides were highly sensitive and effective at detecting single positive peptides as well as summating responses to multiple peptides. Also, assays with a single 15-mer peptide, containing an identified epitope, did not always elicit a response providing validation that 15-mer peptides are not optimal antigens for detecting CD8+ T cells. Our findings further validate pooling-based epitope mapping strategies, which are critical for characterizing vaccine-induced T-cell responses and more broadly for informing iterative vaccine design. We also show ways to improve their application with computational peptide:MHC binding predictors that can accurately identify the optimal epitope within a 15-mer peptide and within a pool of 15-mer peptides.

publication date

  • January 1, 2016