HIV-Tat immunization induces cross-clade neutralizing antibodies and CD4+ T cell increases in antiretroviral-treated South African volunteers: A randomized phase II clinical trial

Barbara Ensoli*, Maphoshane Nchabeleng, Fabrizio Ensoli, Antonella Tripiciano, Stefania Bellino, Orietta Picconi, Cecilia Sgadari, Olimpia Longo, Lara Tavoschi, Daniel Joffe, Aurelio Cafaro, Vittorio Francavilla, Sonia Moretti, Maria Rosaria Pavone Cossut, Barbara Collacchi, Angela Arancio, Giovanni Paniccia, Anna Casabianca, Mauro Magnani, Stefano ButtòElise Levendal, John Velaphi Ndimande, Bennett Asia, Yogan Pillay, Enrico Garaci, Paolo Monini

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Although combined antiretroviral therapy (cART) has saved millions of lives, it is incapable of full immune reconstitution and virus eradication. The transactivator of transcription (Tat) protein is a key human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) virulence factor required for virus replication and transmission. Tat is expressed and released extracellularly by infected cells also under cART and in this form induces immune dysregulation, and promotes virus reactivation, entry and spreading. Of note, anti-Tat antibodies are rare in natural infection and, when present, correlate with asymptomatic state and reduced disease progression. This suggested that induction of anti-Tat antibodies represents a pathogenesis-driven intervention to block progression and to intensify cART. Indeed Tat-based vaccination was safe, immunogenic and capable of immune restoration in an open-label, randomized phase II clinical trial conducted in 168 cART-treated volunteers in Italy. To assess whether B-clade Tat immunization would be effective also in patients with different genetic background and infecting virus, a phase II trial was conducted in South Africa. Methods: The ISS T-003 was a 48-week randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate immunogenicity (primary endpoint) and safety (secondary endpoint) of B-clade Tat (30 μg) given intradermally, three times at 4-week intervals, in 200 HIV-infected adults on effective cART (randomised 1:1) with CD4+ T-cell counts ≥200 cells/μL. Study outcomes also included cross-clade anti-Tat antibodies, neutralization, CD4+ T-cell counts and therapy compliance. Results: Immunization was safe and well-tolerated and induced durable, high titers anti-Tat B-clade antibodies in 97 % vaccinees. Anti-Tat antibodies were cross-clade (all vaccinees tested) and neutralized Tat-mediated entry of oligomeric B-clade and C-clade envelope in dendritic cells (24 participants tested). Anti-Tat antibody titers correlated positively with neutralization. Tat vaccination increased CD4+ T-cell numbers (all participants tested), particularly when baseline levels were still low after years of therapy, and this had a positive correlation with HIV neutralization. Finally, in cART non-compliant patients (24 participants), vaccination contained viral load rebound and maintained CD4+ T-cell numbers over study entry levels as compared to placebo. Conclusions: The data indicate that Tat vaccination can restore the immune system and induces cross-clade neutralizing anti-Tat antibodies in patients with different genetic backgrounds and infecting viruses, supporting the conduct of phase III studies in South Africa. Trial registration

Original languageEnglish
Article number34
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jun 2016


  • AIDS
  • CART
  • CD4 T cells
  • Clinical trials
  • Cross-clade antibodies
  • HIV
  • Neutralization
  • Tat
  • Therapy intensification
  • Vaccine


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