The first generation of candidate vaccines to prevent HIV infection consisted of recombinant envelope proteins (Env, gp120, and gp160) derived from a single laboratory strain of HIV, designated IIIB/LAV, but produced with different expression systems. In this study we examined the fine specificity of the human Ab response to each vaccine and compared them to the responses of laboratory workers infected with the same strain of HIV. The best responders from each vaccine protocol were studied and compared. Detailed comparisons of the fine specificity of the Ab response were possible because all immunologic assays were performed using homologous recombinant proteins, peptides, and virus stocks. Although the total amounts of anti-Env Ab were comparable, the groups exhibited significant differences in epitope specificity, avidity, and functional capacity of the Ab response. The data demonstrate that the form of the immunogen (e.g., live virus or recombinant protein) is important in determining the quality of the Ab response. Conclusions are also drawn regarding characteristics of the anti-HIV-neutralizing Ab response. These studies represent one of the most detailed analyses of the human Ab response to any Ag and have implications for the development of vaccines for HIV as well as for other microbial pathogens.

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