Soluble HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein (Env) trimers are under active investigation as vaccine candidates in relevant pre-clinical models. Like SOSIPs, the cleavage-independent native flexibly linked (NFL) trimers are faithful mimics of the Env spike. Here, we analyzed multiple new designs to explore alternative modifications, informing tertiary interactions, while maintaining NFL trimer homogeneity and integrity. Accordingly, we performed a proline (P) substitution screen in the gp41 heptad repeat 1 region, identifying other trimer-enhancing Ps, including L555P. This P improved trimer integrity compared to I559P in selected properties. Next, we screened 15 structure-guided potential cysteine pairs in gp140 and found that A501C-L663C ("CC2") forms an inter-protomer disulfide bond that demonstrably increased NFL trimer thermostability. We combined these two approaches with trimer-derived substitutions, coupled with glycine substitutions at helix-to-coil transitions, developed by our group. To increase the exposure of the fusion peptide (FP) N-terminus, we engineered an enterokinase (EK) cleavage site upstream of the FP for controlled post-expression cleavage. In combination, the redesigns resulted in highly stable and homogeneous NFL mimics derived from different clades. Following recombinant EK cleavage, the NFL trimers retained covalent linkage, maintaining a native-like structure while displaying enhanced stability and favorable antigenic features. These trimers also displayed increased exposure of neutralizing epitopes in the FP and gp120/gp41 interface, while retaining other neutralizing epitopes and occluding non-neutralizing elements. This array of Env-structure-guided designs reveals additional interactive regions in the prefusion state of the HIV Env spike, affording the development of novel antigens and immunogens.
Keywords: HIV-1 Env; antigenicity; antigens; soluble trimer; stability; vaccines.