Targeting Gonadotropins to the Dendritic Cells : A Novel Strategy for Animal Immunocontraceptive Vaccine
Contraception through a vaccine has been a very attractive proposition and several attempts were made in the past. To achieve contraception through immunological means, several points need to be considered. First, the targeted antigen should be an important component of reproduction and interference in its actions should lead to infertility. Second, the antigen must be highly immunogenic and the antibodies elicited should be able to block the functions of the antigen. Third, the antibody titres should be effective and must sustain for longer periods. Gonadotropins fulfill all the above criteria and therefore, have been attractive targets for developing human contraceptive vaccines. The pituitary gonadotropins- Luteinizing hormone (LH) and the Follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) are the principal regulators of the reproduction process in all the mammalian species (McLachlan et al., 1995c; Moudgal et al., 1992b; Murty et al., 1979a; Selvaraj and Moudgal, 1994a; Weinbauer et al., 1991). In males, LH binds to its specific receptor-LHR, expressed on the Leydig cells and regulates the production of testosterone. This testosterone binds to the androgen receptors expressed in the Sertoli cells and along with FSH, which binds to the specific receptors present on the Sertoli cell membranes, regulate the testicular functions and the spermatogenesis (Simoni et al., 1997; Themmen and Huhtaniemi, 2000; Ulloa-Aguirre and Timossi, 1998). The well documented studies have unequivocally established that the specific immunoneutralization of either hormone by active or passive immunization, leads to disruption of the gonadal functions (Fraser et al., 1986a; Marathe et al., 1995; Moudgal et al., 1992b; Murty et al., 1979b; Shetty et al., 1996; Srinath et al., 1983b) and consequent infertility and this observation formed the basis of the human contraceptive vaccines (Moudgal et al., 1997b; Talwar et al., 2011a; Talwar et al., 2009a). Several studies using testosterone as the main male hormonal contraception method (Matsumoto et al., 1986; Matsumoto et al., 1983a) and anti-hCG vaccine as the female hormonal contraceptive vaccine reached Phase I and II clinical trials (Talwar, 1997; Talwar et al., 1994; Talwar et al., 1997) . However, these human contraceptive vaccines faced several limitations. There was a need to inhibit only particular segments of the entire reproduction process whereas others needed to remain completely unaffected. For example, in males, the FSH regulated functions, the sperm production and spermatogenesis needed to be inhibited whereas the LH/testosterone associated functions should be unaffected. Similarly in females, the functions of hCG alone, elaborated by the conceptus should be blocked without affecting either LH or FSH regulated functions, thus, maintaining the normal reproductive cycle. This however is a difficult task especially when the antigens share a large degree of homology and common subunits (Pierce and Parsons, 1981). Moreover, the issues relating to the development and sustenance of high titres of the bioneutralizing antibodies were major limitations of these human contraceptive vaccines. Therefore, despite reaching Phase I and II clinical trials, these studies did not progress further. However, the same concept of an immunocontraceptive vaccine involving the neutralization of the functions of the gonadotropins is an extremely attractive strategy for controlling the animal populations where the reproduction process could be inhibited in its entirety. The overgrowing populations of the stray animals such as dogs and cats pose problems unlike those experienced with the human overpopulation. Thus, there is an immediate need to develop the methods of controlling the populations of these animals both in the developed and the developing countries. Whereas, in countries like the US, the major emphasis is on the domestic animals, in countries like India, the populations of the stray animals need to be controlled. The current methods employed for reducing the numbers of these animals include either castration or culling of the animals. These methods are however, traumatic, unsafe and not widely accepted by the society. The animal contraceptive vaccines currently available are mostly GnRH vaccines which have high cost of production, are not safe for animal use and elicit unwanted side effects. Apart from these, the animals need multiple administrations of these vaccines to elicit high and effective antibody titres, mostly with the use of conventional but non-approved adjuvants (Boedeker et al., 2009; McCoy, 1994). As mentioned above, the gonadotropins, by virtue of their ability to control the mammalian reproduction process, are attractive targets for achieving contraception. Moreover, the ease of administration of this vaccine to neutralize the functions of the endogenous circulating hormones makes them ideal targets for developing animal immunocontraceptive vaccines. This method of neutralizing the functions of the gonadotropins is also humane and safe for the animals as opposed to the current methods which are employed to reduce their numbers. However, in case of animal contraception, particularly for strays such as dogs, where large numbers of animals need to be treated, the challenge is to develop a method to sustain the high levels of the bioneutralizing antibodies for prolonged periods preferably with a single administration of the immunogen and without the use of conventional adjuvants such as the Freund’s adjuvant. In the present study, an attempt has been made develop a strategy to achieve a sustained immune response to small quantities of the hormonal antigens, preferably with a single administration of the immunogen resulting in complete disruption of the gonadal function for prolonged periods. To achieve this goal, recent developments in the field of immunology and vaccinology have been employed. This involves targeting of the hormonal antigens to the dendritic cells. Targeting the antigens to the dendritic cells for vaccination is becoming an extremely fascinating strategy and is being used extensively to target the antigens involved in several diseases (Escudier et al., 2005; Frankel et al., 1998; Garcia et al., 2005; Nouri-Shirazi et al., 2000a; Nouri-Shirazi et al., 2000b; Steinman and Germain, 1998). Most antigens are targeted to the dendritic cells by coupling them to the antibodies specific for the receptors expressed on the dendritic cell surface. One such receptor is the DEC205, which is expressed on most of the dendritic cells (Jiang et al., 1995) and is being widely used to develop vaccines and vaccination strategies. Targeting the antigens to the dendritic cells provides advantages such as ability to induce hundred fold higher immune response to very low doses of antigen without the use of any conventional adjuvant (Bonifaz et al., 2004a). Therefore, in the present study, these features of the dendritic cells have been harnessed to target the hormonal antigens (hCG and hFSH) to the canine DEC205 receptor to induce a long-term immune response capable of disrupting the gonadal functions. Towards this goal of delivering hormonal antigens to the dendritic cells, a fragment of the canine DEC205 corresponding to the Cysteine Rich Fibronectin II domain (CR/FNII) was expressed and used to isolate several canine DEC205 specific recombinant antibodies in the form of single chain fragment variable (ScFvs) from the Tomlinson’s and the yeast human ScFv display libraries. From a pool of eight unique ScFvs screened from the Tomlinson’s libraries, three ScFvs namely B3, G10 and H4 were characterized. All these ScFvs could bind to the human DEC205 receptor but not to the mouse DEC205. Their inability to recognise the mouse DEC205 suggested that mouse could not be used as the model system for these studies and therefore, a surrogate model system was needed. As the canine CR/FNII shared a high degree of homology with the rabbit counterpart, adult rabbits have been used as the surrogate model for immunization studies after confirming the binding of the ScFvs to the rabbit dendritic cells. Since the goal of the study was to deliver the hormonal antigens to the dendritic cells, each ScFv was translationally fused to a core streptavidin fragment, thus creating bi-functional agents (ScFv-CS) capable of binding to the dendritic cells and also to any biotin-tagged antigen, thus delivering the antigen to the dendritic cells. Of the three ScFvs, the ScFv-CS-H4 which could bind to the canine CR/FNII with the KD of 25nM was used for demonstrating the ability of the ScFv-hormone complex to elicit the bioneutralizing antibody response. The ScFv-CS-H4-biotin-hCG or hFSH or both were administered to adult male rabbits along with poly IC: LC, a Toll-like receptor agonist and the antibody titres were monitored. It was possible to maintain high titres of the bioneutralizing antibodies for more than one year with a single administration of the immunogen. Testicular histology of the immunized animals showed extensive disruption of spermatogenesis with most of the germ cells being TUNEL positive undergoing apoptosis. There was complete absence of elongated spermatids and sperms in the testis indicating infertility caused by immunization with the gonadotropins. These data show that targeting the hormonal antigens to the dendritic cells leads to long-term infertility with minimal immunization. Although the ScFvs from the Tomlinson’s libraries were able to deliver the hormonal antigens to the dendritic cells and produce robust and sustained antibody response capable of disrupting the gonadal functions, the affinities of these ScFvs to DEC205 were moderate. It was felt that increasing the affinities of the ScFvs could enhance the effect with respect to the dose of the antigen that needs to be administered and the duration until which the high antibody titres could be maintained. Therefore, the yeast human ScFv display library offering higher diversity of the human ScFvs displayed, was screened for high affinity DEC205 specific binders. From a pool of several ScFvs, six unique ScFvs were characterized. The amino acid sequences of all ScFvs followed the Kabat's rules for identifying the complimentarity determining regions of the heavy and the light chains of the antibodies. All these ScFvs were unique in their amino acid sequences. The dissociation constants of all these antibodies for the canine CR/ FNII ranged from 10-9 to 10-11 M which was 20-300 fold higher than the ScFvs obtained from the Tomlinson’s libraries. The best ScFv obtained from this library was ScFv-92 with a KD value of 8 x10-11 M. All these ScFvs were able to deliver the payload antigen to both, the mouse DEC205 over-expressing cells and the bone marrow derived dendritic cells. Mice immunized with yeast display ScFvs also yielded antibody response to very small quantities of the immunogen with the highest antibody titres obtained with the ScFv-92. It was further demonstrated that all ScFvs also activated the cell-mediated immunity with significant increase in the antigen stimulated T cell proliferation. These ScFvs could also deliver the antigen to the human dendritic cells differentiated from the human monocytes in vitro, thus emphasising their utility in human vaccine development. An attempt was also made to develop nanoparticle (NP) based strategies of delivering the antigen to the dendritic cells. The PLGA-NPs, encapsulating hCG and coated with the DEC205 ScFv-92 was able to elicit high antibody response to very low doses of the antigen. This response could be sustained for 120 days and was higher than the response obtained with similar doses of hCG encapsulated NPs or hCG complexed to ScFv-92 alone. Targeting of the NPs also elicited antigen specific T cell response thus, potentiating their use in cell mediated immunity along with humoral immune responses. In conclusion, this approach of delivering the gonadotropins to the dendritic cells resulted in the production of bioneutralizing antibodies that could disrupt the gonadal functions for a prolonged period and can be effectively used in the fields for controlling the animal populations. This method fulfils all the criteria for any animal contraception. This strategy also elicits both T cell mediated and humoral immunity and can thus be used for producing vaccine against viral and parasitic infections. It can also be used for cancer immunotherapy. Another exciting feature of the strategy used in this study is the usage of ScFv-CS which allows the delivery of any biotin tagged antigen to the rodent and human dendritic cells. As discussed above, the methods for controlling the animal populations are expected to be effective, humane, safe, simple, non-surgical, single shot with long lasting effects, cheap, applicable in the fields and widely accepted by different societies. The methods presented in this study fulfill all these criteria and should be effective in controlling populations of different animal species.