Virus-Like Particles of SARS-CoV-2 as Virus Surrogates: Morphology, Immunogenicity, and Internalization in Neuronal Cells

ACS Infect Dis. 2022 Oct 14;8(10):2119-2132. doi: 10.1021/acsinfecdis.2c00217. Epub 2022 Sep 21.


The engineering of virus-like particles (VLPs) is a viable strategy for the development of vaccines and for the identification of therapeutic targets without using live viruses. Here, we report the generation and characterization of quadruple-antigen SARS-CoV-2 VLPs. VLPs were generated by transient transfection of two expression cassettes in adherent HEK293T cells─one cassette containing Mpro for processing of three structural proteins (M, E, and N), and the second cassette expressing the Spike protein. Further characterization revealed that the VLPs retain close morphological and antigenic similarity with the native virus and also bind strongly to the SARS-CoV-2 receptor hACE-2 in an in vitro binding assay. Interestingly, the VLPs were found to internalize into U87-MG cells through cholesterol-rich domains in a dynamin-dependent process. Finally, our results showed that mice immunized with VLPs induce robust humoral and cellular immune responses mediated by enhanced levels of IL-4, IL-17, and IFNγ. Taken together, our results demonstrate that VLPs mimic the native virus and induce a strong immune response, indicating the possible use of these particles as an alternative vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2. VLPs can also be effective in mapping the initial stages of virus entry and screening inhibitors.

Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; U87-MG cells; antigenicity; morphology; virus-like particles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • COVID-19* / prevention & control
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-17
  • Interleukin-4
  • Mice
  • SARS-CoV-2*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Virus Internalization


  • Interleukin-17
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2
  • Interleukin-4