Antigens (Ags) in Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) that are constitutively expressed, overexpressed during growth, essential for survival, and highly conserved may be good vaccine targets if they induce the appropriate anti-Mtb Th1 immune response. In this context, stress response-related antigens of Mtb might serve as attractive targets for vaccine development as they are rapidly expressed and are up-regulated during Mtb infection in vivo. Our group recently demonstrated that GrpE, encoded by rv0351 as a cofactor of heat-shock protein 70 (HSP70) in the DnaK operon, is a novel immune activator that interacts with DCs to generate Th1-biased memory T cells in an antigen-specific manner. In this study, GrpE was evaluated as a subunit vaccine in comparison with the well-known HSP70 against the hyper-virulent Mtb Beijing K-strain. Both HSP70- and GrpE-specific effector/memory T cells expanded to a similar extent as those stimulated with ESAT-6 in the lung and spleen of Mtb-infected mice, but GrpE only produced a similar level of IFN-γ to that produced by ESAT-6 stimulation during the late phase and the early phase of Mtb K infection, indicating that GrpE is highly-well recognised by the host immune system as a T cell antigen. Mice immunised with the GrpE subunit vaccine displayed enhanced antigen-specific IFN-γ and serum IgG2c responses along with antigen-specific effector/memory T cell expansion in the lungs. In addition, GrpE-immunisation markedly induced multifunctional Th1-type CD4+ T cells co-expressing IFN-γ, TNF-α, and IL-2 in the lungs of Mtb K-infected mice, whereas HSP70-immunisation induced mixed Th1/Th2 immune responses. GrpE-immunisation conferred a more significant protective effect than that of HSP70-immunisation in terms of bacterial reduction and improved inflammation, accompanied by the remarkable persistence of GrpE-specific multifunctional CD4+ T cells. These results suggest that GrpE is an excellent vaccine antigen component for the development of a multi-antigenic Mtb subunit vaccine by generating Th1-biased memory T cells with multifunctional capacity, and confers durable protection against the highly virulent Mtb K.
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