Immunization with effective cancer vaccines can offer a much needed adjuvant therapy to fill the treatment gap after liver resection to prevent relapse of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). However, current HCC cancer vaccines are mostly based on native shared-self/tumor antigens that are only able to induce weak immune responses. In this study we investigated whether the HCC-associated self/tumor antigen of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) could be engineered to create an effective vaccine to break immune tolerance and potently activate CD8 T cells to prevent clinically relevant carcinogen-induced autochthonous HCC in mice. We found that the approach of computer-guided methodical epitope-optimization created a highly immunogenic AFP and that immunization with lentivector expressing the epitope-optimized AFP, but not wild-type AFP, potently activated CD8 T cells. Critically, the activated CD8 T cells not only cross-recognized short synthetic wild-type AFP peptides, but also recognized and killed tumor cells expressing wild-type AFP protein. Immunization with lentivector expressing optimized AFP, but not native AFP, completely protected mice from tumor challenge and reduced the incidence of carcinogen-induced autochthonous HCC. In addition, prime-boost immunization with the optimized AFP significantly increased the frequency of AFP-specific memory CD8 T cells in the liver that were highly effective against emerging HCC tumor cells, further enhancing the tumor prevention of carcinogen-induced autochthonous HCC. Conclusions: Epitope-optimization is required to break immune tolerance and potently activate AFP-specific CD8 T cells, generating effective antitumor effect to prevent clinically relevant carcinogen-induced autochthonous HCC in mice. Our study provides a practical roadmap to develop effective human HCC vaccines that may result in an improved outcome compared to the current HCC vaccines based on wild-type AFP.
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