We developed an epitope selection method for the design of MHC targeting peptide vaccines. The method utilizes predictions for several clinical checkpoint filters, including binding affinity, immunogenicity, antigenicity, half-life, toxicity, IFNγ release, and instability. The accuracy of the prediction tools for these filter variables was confirmed using experimental data obtained from the Immune Epitope Database (IEDB). We also developed a graphical user interface computational tool called 'PCOptim' to assess the success of an epitope filtration method. To validate the filtration methods, we used a large data set of experimentally determined, immunogenic SARS-CoV-2 epitopes, which were obtained from a meta-analysis. The validation process proved that placing filters on individual parameters was the most effective method to select top epitopes. For a proof-of-concept, we designed epitope-based vaccine candidates for squamous cell carcinoma, selected from the top mutated epitopes of the HRAS gene. By comparing the filtered epitopes to PCOptim's output, we assessed the success of the epitope selection method. The top 15 mutations in squamous cell carcinoma resulted in 16 CD8 epitopes which passed the clinical checkpoints filters. Notably, the identified HRAS epitopes are the same as the clinical immunogenic HRAS epitope-based vaccine candidates identified by the previous studies. This indicates further validation of our filtration method. We expect a similar turn-around for the other designed HRAS epitopes as a vaccine candidate for squamous cell carcinoma. Furthermore, we obtained a world population coverage of 89.45% for the top MHC Class I epitopes and 98.55% population coverage in the absence of the IFNγ release clinical checkpoint filter. We also identified some of the predicted human epitopes to be strong binders to murine MHC molecules, which provides insight into studying their immunogenicity in preclinical models. Further investigation in murine models could warrant the application of these epitopes for treatment or prevention of squamous cell carcinoma.
Keywords: HLA alleles; HRAS epitopes; MHC molecules; design of T cell epitope-based vaccine candidate; epitope selection method; epitope-based vaccine; immuno-informatics; multivalent epitopes; squamous cell carcinoma vaccine.