An effective vaccine for hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a major unmet need, and it requires an antigen that elicits immune responses to key conserved epitopes. Based on structures of antibodies targeting HCV envelope glycoprotein E2, we designed immunogens to modulate the structure and dynamics of E2 and favor induction of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) in the context of a vaccine. These designs include a point mutation in a key conserved antigenic site to stabilize its conformation, as well as redesigns of an immunogenic region to add a new N-glycosylation site and mask it from antibody binding. Designs were experimentally characterized for binding to a panel of human monoclonal antibodies (HMAbs) and the coreceptor CD81 to confirm preservation of epitope structure and preferred antigenicity profile. Selected E2 designs were tested for immunogenicity in mice, with and without hypervariable region 1, which is an immunogenic region associated with viral escape. One of these designs showed improvement in polyclonal immune serum binding to HCV pseudoparticles and neutralization of isolates associated with antibody resistance. These results indicate that antigen optimization through structure-based design of the envelope glycoproteins is a promising route to an effective vaccine for HCV.IMPORTANCE Hepatitis C virus infects approximately 1% of the world's population, and no vaccine is currently available. Due to the high variability of HCV and its ability to actively escape the immune response, a goal of HCV vaccine design is to induce neutralizing antibodies that target conserved epitopes. Here, we performed structure-based design of several epitopes of the HCV E2 envelope glycoprotein to engineer its antigenic properties. Designs were tested in vitro and in vivo, demonstrating alteration of the E2 antigenic profile in several cases, and one design led to improvement of cross-neutralization of heterologous viruses. This represents a proof of concept that rational engineering of HCV envelope glycoproteins can be used to modulate E2 antigenicity and optimize a vaccine for this challenging viral target.
Keywords: antigenicity; hepatitis C virus; human monoclonal antibodies; immunogenicity; structure-based design; vaccine.
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