Protein minimization is an attractive approach for designing vaccines against rapidly evolving pathogens such as human immunodeficiency virus, type 1 (HIV-1), because it can help in focusing the immune response toward conserved conformational epitopes present on complex targets. The outer domain (OD) of HIV-1 gp120 contains epitopes for a large number of neutralizing antibodies and therefore is a primary target for structure-based vaccine design. We have previously designed a bacterially expressed outer-domain immunogen (ODEC) that bound CD4-binding site (CD4bs) ligands with 3-12 μm affinity and elicited a modest neutralizing antibody response in rabbits. In this study, we have optimized ODEC using consensus sequence design, cyclic permutation, and structure-guided mutations to generate a number of variants with improved yields, biophysical properties, stabilities, and affinities (KD of 10-50 nm) for various CD4bs targeting broadly neutralizing antibodies, including the germline-reverted version of the broadly neutralizing antibody VRC01. In contrast to ODEC, the optimized immunogens elicited high anti-gp120 titers in rabbits as early as 6 weeks post-immunization, before any gp120 boost was given. Following two gp120 boosts, sera collected at week 22 showed cross-clade neutralization of tier 1 HIV-1 viruses. Using a number of different prime/boost combinations, we have identified a cyclically permuted OD fragment as the best priming immunogen, and a trimeric, cyclically permuted gp120 as the most suitable boosting molecule among the tested immunogens. This study also provides insights into some of the biophysical correlates of improved immunogenicity.
Keywords: glycosylation; hydrogen–deuterium exchange; mutagenesis; protein design; protein refolding; vaccine development; yeast surface display.
© 2018 Rathore et al.