The MPER region of the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein gp41 is targeted by broadly neutralizing antibodies. However, the localization of this epitope in a hydrophobic environment seems to hamper the elicitation of these antibodies in HIV infected individuals.We have quantified and characterized anti-MPER antibodies by ELISA and by flow cytometry using a collection of mini gp41-derived proteins expressed on the surface of 293T cells. Longitudinal plasma samples from 35 HIV-1 infected individuals were assayed for MPER recognition and MPER-dependent neutralizing capacity using HIV-2 viruses engrafted with HIV-1 MPER sequences. Miniproteins devoid of the cysteine loop of gp41 exposed the MPER on 293T cell membrane. Anti-MPER antibodies were identified in most individuals and were stable when analyzed in longitudinal samples. The magnitude of the responses was strongly correlated with the global response to the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein, suggesting no specific limitation for anti-MPER antibodies. Peptide mapping showed poor recognition of the C-terminal MPER moiety and a wide presence of antibodies against the 2F5 epitope. However, antibody titers failed to correlate with 2F5-blocking activity and, more importantly, with the specific neutralization of HIV-2 chimeric viruses bearing the HIV-1 MPER sequence; suggesting a strong functional heterogeneity in anti-MPER humoral responses. Anti-MPER antibodies can be detected in the vast majority of HIV-1 infected individuals and are generated in the context of the global anti-Env response. However, the neutralizing capacity is heterogeneous suggesting that eliciting neutralizing anti-MPER antibodies by immunization might require refinement of immunogens to skip nonneutralizing responses.
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