Approximately one fifth of all malignancies worldwide are etiologically associated with a persistent viral or bacterial infection. Thus, there is a particular interest in therapeutic molecules which use components of a natural immune response to specifically inhibit oncogenic microbial proteins, as it is anticipated they will elicit fewer off-target effects than conventional treatments. This concept has been explored in the context of human papillomavirus 16 (HPV16)-related cancers, through the development of monoclonal antibodies and fragments thereof against the viral E6 oncoprotein. Challenges related to the biology of E6 as well as the functional properties of the antibodies themselves appear to have precluded their clinical translation. Here, we addressed these issues by exploring the utility of the variable domains of camelid heavy-chain-only antibodies (denoted as VHHs). Through construction and panning of two llama, immune VHH phage display libraries, a pool of potential VHHs was isolated. The interactions of these with recombinant E6 were further characterized using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), Western blotting under denaturing and native conditions, and surface plasmon resonance. Three VHHs were identified that bound recombinant E6 with nanomolar affinities. Our results lead the way for subsequent studies into the ability of these novel molecules to inhibit HPV16-infected cells in vitro and in vivo.
Keywords: E6 oncoprotein; Human papillomavirus; VHH; cancer; nanobody; phage display; single-domain antibody.