The high genetic variability of hepatitis C virus, together with the high level of glycosylation on the viral envelope proteins shielding potential neutralizing epitopes, pose a difficult challenge for vaccine development. An effective hepatitis C virus (HCV) vaccine must target conserved epitopes and the HCV E2 glycoprotein is the main target for such neutralizing antibodies (NAbs). Recent structural investigations highlight the presence of a highly conserved and accessible surface on E2 that is devoid of N-linked glycans and known as the E2 neutralizing face. This face is defined as a hydrophobic surface comprising the front layer (FL) and the CD81 binding loop (CD81bl) that overlap with the CD81 receptor binding site on E2. The neutralizing face consists of highly conserved residues for recognition by cross-NAbs, yet it appears to be high conformationally flexible, thereby presenting a moving target for NAbs. Three main overlapping neutralizing sites have been identified in the neutralizing face: antigenic site 412 (AS412), antigenic site 434 (AS434), and antigenic region 3 (AR3). Here, we review the structural analyses of these neutralizing sites, either as recombinant E2 or epitope-derived linear peptides in complex with bNAbs, to understand the functional and preferred conformations for neutralization, and for viral escape. Collectively, these studies provide a foundation and molecular templates to facilitate structure-based approaches for HCV vaccine development.
Keywords: crystal structure; hepatitis C virus; neutralizing antibodies; neutralizing face; vaccine design.