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Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) can cause lethal hemorrhagic disease in juvenile Asian elephants, an endangered species. One hypothesis to explain this vulnerability of some juvenile elephants is that they fail to mount an effective T cell response to the virus. To our knowledge, there have been no studies of Asian elephant T cell responses to EEHV. To address this deficiency, we validated the IFN-γ ELISpot assay for tracking antigen-directed T cell activity by monitoring rabies-specific responses in vaccinated elephants. Additionally, we generated monoclonal antibodies to Asian elephant CD4 and CD8 to facilitate phenotypic T cell profiling. Using these tools, we screened healthy elephants with a prior history of EEHV infection for reactivity against 9 EEHV proteins whose counterparts in other herpesviruses are known to induce T cell responses in their natural hosts. We identified glycoprotein B (gB) and the putative regulatory protein E40 as the most immunogenic T cell targets (IFN-γ responses in 5 of 7 elephants) followed by the major capsid protein (MCP) (IFN-γ responses in 3 of 7 elephants). We also observed that IFN-γ responses were largely from CD4+ T cells. We detected no activity against the predicted major immediate early (E44) and large tegument (E34) proteins- both immunodominant T cell targets in humans latently infected with cytomegalovirus. These studies have identified EEHV-specific T cells in Asian elephants for the first time, lending insight into the T cell priming that might be required to protect against EEHV disease and will guide the design of effective vaccine strategies.
IMPORTANCE Endangered Asian elephants are facing many threats, including lethal hemorrhagic disease from elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV). EEHV usually establishes chronic, benign infections in mature Asian elephants but can be lethal to juvenile elephants in captivity and the wild. It is the leading cause of death in captive Asian elephants in North America and Europe. Despite availability of sensitive tests and protocols for treating EEHV-associated illness, these measures are not always effective. The best line of defense would be a preventative vaccine. We interrogated normal healthy elephants previously infected with EEHV for T cell responses to 9 EEHV proteins predicted to induce cellular immune responses. Three proteins elicited IFN-γ responses, suggesting their potential usefulness as vaccine candidates. Our work is the first to describe T cell responses to a member of the proposed fourth subfamily of mammalian herpesviruses, the Deltaherpesvirinae, within a host species in the clade Afrotheria. An EEHV vaccine would greatly contribute to the healthcare of Asian and African elephants that are also susceptible to this disease.