New vaccine-design approach targets HIV and other fast-mutating viruses

March 28, 2013, Scripps Research Institute
The researchers demonstrated their new technique by engineering a compound that has promise to initiate an otherwise rare immune response against many types of HIV. Here, the germline-targeting immunogen eOD-GT6 (red) is shown bound to its target, the germline VRC01 antibody (magenta and yellow). Credit: The Scripps Research Institute.

A team led by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) has unveiled a new technique for vaccine design that could be particularly useful against HIV and other fast-changing viruses.

The report, which appears March 28, 2013, in Science Express, the early online edition of the journal Science, offers a step toward solving what has been one of the central problems of modern : how to stimulate the immune system to produce the right kind of antibody response to protect against a wide range of . The researchers demonstrated their new technique by engineering an immunogen (substance that induces immunity) that has promise to reliably initiate an otherwise rare response effective against many types of HIV.

"We're hoping to test this immunogen soon in mice engineered to produce , and eventually in humans," said team leader William R. Schief, who is an associate professor of immunology and member of the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center at TSRI.

Seeking a Better Way

For highly variable viruses such as HIV and influenza, vaccine researchers want to elicit that protect against most or all viral strains—not just a few strains, as seasonal flu vaccines currently on the market. Vaccine researchers have identified several of these broadly from long-term HIV-positive survivors, harvesting antibody-producing from and then sifting through them to identify those that produce antibodies capable of neutralizing multiple strains of HIV. Such broadly neutralizing antibodies typically work by blocking crucial functional sites on a virus that are conserved among different strains despite high mutation elsewhere.

However, even with these powerful broadly neutralizing antibodies in hand, scientists need to find a way to elicit their production in the body through a vaccine. "For example, to elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies called VRC01-class antibodies that neutralize 90 percent of known HIV strains, you could try using the HIV envelope protein as your immunogen," said Schief, "but you run into the problem that the envelope protein doesn't bind with any detectable affinity to the B cells needed to launch a broadly neutralizing antibody response."

To reliably initiate that VRC01-class antibody response, Schief and his colleagues therefore sought to develop a new method for designing vaccine immunogens.

From Weak to Strong

Joseph Jardine, a TSRI graduate student in the Schief laboratory, evaluated the genes of VRC01-producing B cells in order to deduce the identities of the less mature B cells—known as germline B cells—from which they originate. Germline B cells are major targets of modern viral vaccines, because it is the initial stimulation of these B cells and their antibodies that leads to a long-term antibody response.

In response to vaccination, germline B cells could, in principle, mature into the desired VRC01-producing B cells—but natural HIV proteins fail to bind or stimulate these germline B cells so they cannot get the process started. The team thus set out to design an artificial immunogen that would be successful at achieving this.

Jardine used a protein modeling software suite called Rosetta to improve the binding of VRC01 germline B cell antibodies to HIV's envelope protein. "We asked Rosetta to look for mutations on the side of the HIV envelope protein that would help it bind tightly to our germline antibodies," he said.

Rosetta identified dozens of mutations that could help improve binding to germline antibodies. Jardine then generated libraries that contained all possible combinations of beneficial mutations, resulting in millions of mutants, and screened them using techniques called yeast surface display and FACS. This combination of computational prediction and directed evolution successfully produced a few mutant envelope proteins with high affinity for germline VRC01-class antibodies.

Jardine then focused on making a minimal immunogen—much smaller than HIV envelope—and so continued development using the "engineered outer domain (eOD)" previously developed by Po-Ssu Huang in the Schief lab while Schief was at the University of Washington. Several iterative rounds of design and selection using a panel of germline antibodies produced a final, optimized immunogen—a construct they called eOD-GT6.

A Closer Look

To get a better look at eOD-GT6 and its interaction with germline antibodies, the team turned to the laboratory of Ian A. Wilson, chair of the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology and a member of the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center at TSRI.

Jean-Philippe Julien, a senior research associate in the Wilson laboratory, determined the 3D atomic structure of the designed immunogen using X-ray crystallography—and, in an unusual feat, also determined the crystal structure of a germline VRC01 antibody, plus the structure of the immunogen and antibody bound together.

"We wanted to know whether eOD-GT6 looked the way we anticipated and whether it bound to the antibody in the way that we predicted—and in both cases the answer was 'yes'," said Julien. "We also were able to identify the key mutations that conferred its reactivity with germline VRC01 antibodies."

Mimicking a Virus

Vaccine researchers know that such an immunogen typically does better at stimulating an antibody response when it is presented not as a single copy but in a closely spaced cluster of multiple copies, and with only its antibody-binding end exposed. "We wanted it to look like a virus," said Sergey Menis, a visiting graduate student in the Schief laboratory.

Menis therefore devised a tiny virus-mimicking particle made from 60 copies of an obscure bacterial enzyme and coated it with 60 copies of eOD-GT6. The particle worked well at activating VRC01 germline B cells and even mature B cells in the lab dish, whereas single-copy eOD-GT6 did not.

"Essentially it's a self-assembling nanoparticle that presents the immunogen in a properly oriented way," Menis said. "We're hoping that this approach can be used not just for an HIV vaccine but for many other vaccines, too."

The next step for the eOD-GT6 immunogen project, said Schief, is to test its ability to stimulate an antibody response in lab animals that are themselves engineered to produce human germline antibodies. The difficulty with testing immunogens that target human germline antibodies is that animals typically used for vaccine testing cannot make those same antibodies. So the team is collaborating with other researchers who are engineering mice to produce human germline antibodies. After that, he hopes to learn how to drive the response, from the activation of the germline B cells all the way to the production of mature, broadly neutralizing VRC01-class antibodies, using a series of designed immunogens.

Schief also hopes they will be able to test their germline-targeting approach in humans sooner rather than later, noting "it will be really important to find out if this works in a human being."

Explore further: Scientists map route for eliciting HIV-neutralizing antibodies

More information: "Rational HIV immunogen design to target specific germline B cell receptors," Science Express, 2013.

Related Stories

Scientists map route for eliciting HIV-neutralizing antibodies

August 11, 2011
Researchers have traced in detail how certain powerful HIV neutralizing antibodies evolve, a finding that generates vital clues to guide the design of a preventive HIV vaccine, according to a study appearing in Science Express ...

New HIV vaccine approach targets desirable immune cells

September 1, 2011
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School have demonstrated an approach to HIV vaccine design that uses an altered form of HIV's outer coating or envelope ...

Researchers determine how antibody recognizes key sugars on HIV surface

November 23, 2011
HIV is coated in sugars that usually hide the virus from the immune system. Newly published research reveals how one broadly neutralizing HIV antibody actually uses part of the sugary cloak to help bind to the virus. The ...

Biologists create anti-HIV antibody that shows increased potency

October 27, 2011
Using highly potent antibodies isolated from HIV-positive people, researchers have recently begun to identify ways to broadly neutralize the many possible subtypes of HIV. Now, a team led by biologists at the California Institute ...

Recommended for you

War in Ukraine has escalated HIV spread in the country: study

January 15, 2018
Conflict in Ukraine has increased the risk of HIV outbreaks throughout the country as displaced HIV-infected people move from war-affected regions to areas with higher risk of transmission, according to analysis by scientists.

Researchers offer new model for uncovering true HIV mortality rates in Zambia

January 12, 2018
A new study that seeks to better ascertain HIV mortality rates in Zambia could provide a model for improved national and regional surveillance approaches, and ultimately, more effective HIV treatment strategies.

New drug capsule may allow weekly HIV treatment

January 9, 2018
Researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital have developed a capsule that can deliver a week's worth of HIV drugs in a single dose. This advance could make it much easier for patients to adhere to the strict schedule ...

New long-acting, less-toxic HIV drug suppresses virus in humanized mice

January 8, 2018
A team of Yale researchers tested a new chemical compound that suppresses HIV, protects immune cells, and remains effective for weeks with a single dose. In animal experiments, the compound proved to be a promising new candidate ...

Usage remains low for pill that can prevent HIV infection

January 8, 2018
From gritty neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles to clinics in Kenya and Brazil, health workers are trying to popularize a pill that has proven highly effective in preventing HIV but which—in their view—remains woefully ...

Researchers find clues to AIDS resistance in sooty mangabey genome

January 3, 2018
Peaceful co-existence, rather than war: that's how sooty mangabeys, a monkey species found in West Africa, handle infection by SIV, a relative of HIV, and avoid developing AIDS-like disease.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Anomalice
not rated yet Apr 01, 2013
Is it possible to modify a virus to fight against virus? You know, just like HIV vs HIV?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.