Variability of the major antigenic sites of the envelope glycoprotein of HIV-1 constitutes a major problem in the formulation of effective vaccines. We have prepared a synthetic peptide vaccine that represents the major hypervariable epitopes (V1 through V5) of the clade B HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein (gp120). We refer to this preparation as variable epitope immunogen or VEI vaccine. This construct takes into consideration the type and frequency of amino acid substitutions found at each epitope during the evolution of the virus in individual patients and in the target population. Immunization of mice, rabbits, and rhesus macaques with the VEI vaccine resulted in the induction of long-lasting, high-titered HIV-1 antibodies, including antibodies that neutralize primary isolates. We also documented lymphocyte proliferative responses to the VEI vaccine, its individual components, analogs, and subtype-specific peptides representing the major hypervariable regions of HIV-1 gp120. Delayed-type hypersensitivity responses to these antigens were also demonstrated in mice. Our results show that this vaccine is highly immunogenic and safe in animals. Our data suggest that this formulation could become an important component of combination vaccine approaches against HIV-1 and other antigenically variable pathogens.
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