Human Monoclonal Antibodies against NS1 Protein Protect against Lethal West Nile Virus Infection

mBio. 2021 Oct 12;12(5):e0244021. doi: 10.1128/mBio.02440-21. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Envelope protein-targeted vaccines for flaviviruses are limited by concerns of antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) of infections. Nonstructural protein 1 (NS1) provides an alternative vaccine target that avoids this risk since this protein is absent from the virion. Beyond its intracellular role in virus replication, extracellular forms of NS1 function in immune modulation and are recognized by host-derived antibodies. The rational design of NS1-based vaccines requires an extensive understanding of the antigenic sites on NS1, especially those targeted by protective antibodies. Here, we isolated human monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) from individuals previously naturally infected with WNV, mapped their epitopes using structure-guided mutagenesis, and evaluated their efficacy in vivo against lethal WNV challenge. The most protective epitopes clustered at three antigenic sites that are exposed on cell surface forms of NS1: (i) the wing flexible loop, (ii) the outer, electrostatic surface of the wing, and (iii) the spaghetti loop face of the β-ladder. One additional MAb mapped to the distal tip of the β-ladder and conferred a lower level of protection against WNV despite not binding to NS1 on the surface of infected cells. Our study defines the epitopes and modes of binding of protective anti-NS1 MAb antibodies following WNV infection, which may inform the development of NS1-based countermeasures against flaviviruses. IMPORTANCE Therapeutic antibodies against flaviviruses often promote neutralization by targeting the envelope protein of the virion. However, this approach is hindered by a possible concern for antibody-dependent enhancement of infection and paradoxical worsening of disease. As an alternative strategy, antibodies targeting flavivirus nonstructural protein 1 (NS1), which is absent from the virion, can protect against disease and do not cause enhanced infection. Here, we evaluate the structure-function relationships and protective activity of West Nile virus (WNV) NS1-specific monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) isolated from the memory B cells of a naturally infected human donor. We identify several anti-NS1 MAbs that protect mice against lethal WNV challenge and map their epitopes using charge reversal mutagenesis. Antibodies targeting specific regions in the NS1 structure could serve as the basis for countermeasures that control WNV infection in humans.

Keywords: antibody function; epitope; flavivirus; viral pathogenesis.