The immunotherapeutic potential of biologically active HIV-1 Tat protein coupled to autologous red blood cells (RBCs) was evaluated in a mouse model. HIV-1 Tat expressed in Escherichia coli and purified to homogeneity was found to be active in viral trans activation and efficiently internalised by monocyte-derived dendritic cells (MDDCs). The product of HIV-Tat biotinylation and coupling to RBCs by means of a biotin-avidin-biotin bridge, (RBC-Tat), showed no trans activation activity and was still efficiently internalized by MDDCs as compared to uncoupled Tat.Balb/c mice were then immunized with 10 microg of soluble Tat in complete Freund's adjuvant or with 40 ng of Tat coupled on RBCs surface and boosted at week 3, 6 and 25 with 5 microg soluble Tat in incomplete Freund's adjuvant or with 20 ng of RBC-coupled Tat, respectively. Anti-Tat antibody response was similar in both groups; however, 2/6 animals immunized with soluble Tat and 6/6 animals immunized with RBC-Tat developed anti-Tat neutralizing antibodies. In addition, at week 28 cytolytic anti-Tat CTLs were detected in all animals although they were slightly higher in mice immunized with RBC-Tat. These results indicate that RBC-mediated delivery of HIV-1 Tat, in amounts 250 times lower than soluble Tat, is safe and induces specific CTL responses and neutralizing antibodies
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