The vaccinia virus (VACV) C6 protein has sequence similarities with the poxvirus family Pox_A46, involved in regulation of host immune responses, but its role is unknown. Here, we have characterized the C6 protein and its effects in virus replication, innate immune sensing and immunogenicity in vivo. C6 is a 18.2 kDa protein, which is expressed early during virus infection and localizes to the cytoplasm of infected cells. Deletion of the C6L gene from the poxvirus vector MVA-B expressing HIV-1 Env, Gag, Pol and Nef antigens from clade B (MVA-B ΔC6L) had no effect on virus growth kinetics; therefore C6 protein is not essential for virus replication. The innate immune signals elicited by MVA-B ΔC6L in human macrophages and monocyte-derived dendritic cells (moDCs) are characterized by the up-regulation of the expression of IFN-β and IFN-α/β-inducible genes. In a DNA prime/MVA boost immunization protocol in mice, flow cytometry analysis revealed that MVA-B ΔC6L enhanced the magnitude and polyfunctionality of the HIV-1-specific CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell memory immune responses, with most of the HIV-1 responses mediated by the CD8+ T-cell compartment with an effector phenotype. Significantly, while MVA-B induced preferentially Env- and Gag-specific CD8+ T-cell responses, MVA-B ΔC6L induced more Gag-Pol-Nef-specific CD8+ T-cell responses. Furthermore, MVA-B ΔC6L enhanced the levels of antibodies against Env in comparison with MVA-B. These findings revealed that C6 can be considered as an immunomodulator and that deleting C6L gene in MVA-B confers an immunological benefit by enhancing IFN-β-dependent responses and increasing the magnitude and quality of the T-cell memory immune responses to HIV-1 antigens. Our observations are relevant for the improvement of MVA vectors as HIV-1 vaccines.
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