Background: The membrane-proximal external region (MPER) of HIV-1 gp41 is particularly conserved and target for the potent broadly neutralizing monoclonal antibodies (bnMAbs) 2F5, 4E10 and 10E8. Epitope focusing and stabilization present promising strategies to enhance the quality of immune responses to specific epitopes.
Results: The aim of this work was to design and evaluate novel immunogens based on the gp41 MPER with the potential to elicit cross-clade neutralizing antibodies. For that purpose, gp41 was truncated N-terminally in order to dispose immunodominant, non-neutralizing sites and enhance the exposure of conserved regions. To stabilize a trimeric conformation, heterologous GCN4 and HA2 zipper domains were fused based on an in silico "best-fit" model to the protein's amino terminus. Cell surface exposure of resulting proteins and their selective binding to bnMAbs 2F5 and 4E10 could be shown by cytometric analyses. Incorporation into VLPs and preservation of antigenic structures were verified by electron microscopy, and the oligomeric state was successfully stabilized by zipper domains. These gp41 immunogens were evaluated for antigenicity in an immunization study in rabbits primed with homologous DNA expression plasmids and boosted with virus-like particle (VLP) proteins. Low titers of anti-MPER antibodies were measured by IgG ELISA, and low neutralizing activity could be detected against a clade C and B viral isolate in sera.
Conclusions: Thus, although neutralizing titers were very moderate, induction of cross-clade neutralizing antibodies seems possible following immunization with MPER-focusing immunogens. However, further refinement of MPER presentation and immunogenicity is clearly needed to induce substantial neutralization responses to these epitopes.