After over 3 decades of research, an effective anti-HIV vaccine remains elusive. The recently halted HVTN702 clinical trial not only further stresses the challenge to develop an effective HIV vaccine but also emphasizes that unconventional and novel vaccine strategies are urgently needed. Here, we report that a vaccine focusing the immune response on the sequences surrounding the 12 viral protease cleavage sites (PCSs) provided greater than 80% protection to Mauritian cynomolgus macaques against repeated intravaginal SIVmac251 challenges. The PCS-specific T cell responses correlated with vaccine efficacy. The PCS vaccine did not induce immune activation or inflammation known to be associated with increased susceptibility to HIV infection. Machine learning analyses revealed that the immune microenvironment generated by the PCS vaccine was predictive of vaccine efficacy. Our study demonstrates, for the first time to our knowledge, that a vaccine which targets only viral maturation, but lacks full-length Env and Gag immunogens, can prevent intravaginal infection in a stringent macaque/SIV challenge model. Targeting HIV maturation thus offers a potentially novel approach to developing an effective HIV vaccine.
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