|dc.description.abstract||The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a member of the retroviridae family from lentivirus genus which primarily infects CD4+ T cells and also to lesser degree monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells causing progressive failure of the immune system, ultimately leading to development of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Currently ~ 37 million people are infected with HIV-1 with approximately 2 million new infections occurring every year (UNAIDS, 2016). Developing safe, effective, and affordable vaccines to prevent HIV infection is the best hope for controlling the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Envelope glycoprotein (Env) on the HIV-1 virion surface is synthesized as a single precursor protein gp160 which is cleaved by furin to form the gp120 and gp41 subunits. gp41 is inserted into the membrane, while gp120 remains non-covalently associated with the ectodomain of gp41 to form a trimer of heterodimers. gp120 binds to the CD4 receptor on CD4+ T cells, which triggers a series of conformational changes leading to the exposure of co-receptor binding sites on gp120. Subsequent binding to the co-receptor (CXCR4 or CCR5) on T-cells initiates fusion of cellular and viral membranes via gp41 subunit. The envelope glycoprotein gp120, on the virion surface is the most accessible component of HIV-1 to the host immune system, and the target of most of the neutralization response. However, the virus has evolved many efficient ways to escape this immune surveillance. Extensive glycosylation of gp120 is one way by which it masks critical neutralization epitopes and the presence of immunodominant long variable loops focuses the immune response away from conserved regions. Certain conserved epitopes are cryptic and get exposed only after gp120 binds to its receptor. Also gp120 and gp41 are highly flexible molecules, attached in a non-covalent fashion to form a trimer of heterodimers, leading to inherent metastability of the Env. This results in exposure of a large number of non-native conformations to the immune system and thus minimizes elicitation of neutralizing antibodies. Despite these defense mechanisms, about 20-30% of HIV-1 patients do generate a broad neutralization response. Although these bNAbs and their epitopes have been identified, eliciting similar bNAbs through immunization is challenging. Monomeric gp120 when used as an immunogen elicits non neutralizing antibodies. This indicates that the epitopes of bNAbs are not present in the right conformation on this molecule. A rational design approach which focuses the immune response towards specific epitopes targeted by bNAbs is required, with the aim to maximize the exposure of conserved neutralization epitopes and to simultaneously ensure minimal exposure of variable non neutralizing epitopes. This can likely be achieved either by
(a) stabilization of native Env trimers, or/and by (b) protein fragment design. Chapter 1 gives a brief description of HIV-1 virus. Structural features of the Env protein are described along with epitopes targeted by various bNAbs. Various strategies employed towards structure based vaccine design are discussed. One of the strategies towards rational vaccine design is using protein fragment based approaches. Grafting epitopes onto heterologous scaffolds is a promising approach which can provide more structural stability to the epitope, helps focus immune
response on the epitope of interest and can be employed in a prime boost strategy for immunization studies. In a scaffold based approach we used crystal structure information of gp120 in complex with bNAb b12 to define the epitope of this antibody. In Chapter 2 we use this epitope information to graft the epitope on an unrelated scaffold protein to design unique epitope scaffolds. We report a computational strategy to graft the discontinuous epitope of b12 antibody onto different scaffold proteins. Our strategy focuses on identifying the best match of the target scaffold to the query protein so as to cause the least structural disturbance in the scaffold protein. The best hits were screened for binding to b12 using Yeast Surface Display (YSD). Random mutant libraries were also generated to screen for better b12 binders using YSD. We further characterized a few of these epitope scaffolds after purifying them from bacterial systems. One of the epitope scaffolds 1mkh_E2 bound to b12 with a KD value of 7.5µM. 2bodx_03, an unoptimized epitope scaffold reported previously (Azoitei et al, 2011) binds b12 with a KD value of 300μM. Thus our epitope scaffold 1mkh_E2 shows reasonable binding to b12 without any optimization. We are currently purifying other b12 epitope scaffolds and will be characterizing them for binding to b12.
We have previously used a protein minimization strategy to design fragments of gp120, called b122a and b121a comprising a compact beta barrel on the lower part of the outer domain in order to focus the immune response towards the b12 epitope. (Bhattacharyya et al, 2013). These were bacterially expressed, found to be partially folded, however, could bind the broadly neutralizing antibody b12 with micromolar affinity. In rabbit immunization studies sera obtained following four primes with the b122a fragment protein and two boosts with full-length gp120 showed broad neutralization of a panel of multiple viruses across different clades (Bhattacharyya et al, 2013). In the present work, These designs were further stabilised by introducing various disulphides. One of the disulphide mutants b122a1-b showed better binding to b12 compared to b122a and increased protection to protease digestion. However these are partially structured as assessed by CD. In Chapter 3 we attempted to evolve stabilized versions of b122a1-b by using a genetic selection based on antibiotic resistance described previously (Foit et al, 2009). We were successfully able to show an in-vivo stability difference between b122a and b122a1-b. From the library generated in the background of b122a1-b using random mutagenesis, a few apparently stabilized mutants were isolated. Most of these mutations were hydrophobic to polar substitutions at exposed positions while a few of the mutations were substitutions with similar side chain chemistry as in wildtype. In future studies we will measure mutant stabilities and binding affinity to b12. A set of similar fragment immunogens were also designed based on subtype C CAP210 gp120 sequences. In Chapter 4 we describe various immunization studies comprising of different sets of b12 epitope based fragment immunogens. In one study we displayed some of these immunogens on Qβ VLPs. In another study, we tested subtype C based fragment immunogens. The humoral immune response was probed in terms of generation of antibodies against the immunogens using ELISA. Neutralization activity of the sera was measured in a standard TZM-bl assay. Sera raised against these particles in rabbit immunization studies could neutralize Tier1 viruses across different subtypes. The group primed with particles displaying b122a1-b and the group primed with b122a conjugated to particle in the presence of adjuvant contained significantly higher amounts of antibodies directed towards the CD4bs than sera from the group primed with empty particles and boosted with gp120. This study demonstrates the overall utility of the particle based display approach. In
immunization studies with subtype C derived fragment immunogens as primes, no significant neutralization was seen even for Tier 1 viruses. In this study, the group primed and boosted with full length gp120 performed better than other groups suggesting that antibodies elicited against regions present in these subtype C priming immunogens are non-neutralizing.
One of the rational vaccine design strategies is by stabilization of native Env trimers. In previous studies, a disulfide bond was engineered between gp120 and gp41 of Env to stabilize the interactions (SOS gp140). An I559P mutation was also introduced to stabilize the native gp41 conformation in the context of disulfide engineered Env (SOSIP gp140). The purified, soluble SOSIP gp140 immunogens were trimeric and cleaved properly and are believed to be one of the closest mimics of native Env trimers. However, these immunogens have so far failed to elicit broad neutralizing responses. In Chapter 5, we use structural information derived from high resolution atomic structure of native like cleaved gp140 BG505-SOSIP, to provide an alternate strategy to form uncleaved trimeric gp140s by cyclic permutation to design molecules that mimic cleaved trimers. The structure reveals that the gp41 C-terminus is in very close proximity (~8Å) to the N-terminus of gp120 from an adjacent subunit. We have designed a cyclic permutant of gp140 from JRFL strain where the gp41 C terminus is now connected to the gp120 N-terminus with a short linker. This novel connectivity results in preservation of the native gp41 N-terminus along with a much shorter linker length than in conventional gp140. This might promote trimer folding and stabilization because of the resulting decreased magnitude of conformational entropy change during folding. The structure also reveals that the gp120 C-terminus is close to the trimer axis, and due to cyclic permutation, this becomes the new C-terminus of gp140. To further stabilize the trimeric form, we have attached a foldon trimerization domain at the C terminus. The protein has been expressed and purified from mammalian cells. The protein exists primarily as a trimer in solution as assessed by SEC-MALS. It shows better binding to broadly neutralizing antibody b12 when compared to b6, a non-neutralizing antibody. Further biophysical characterization of the protein is in progress.
We have previously described design of a bacterially expressed outer domain derivative of gp120 (ODEC) that had V1/V2 and V3 loops deleted and bound CD4 (Bhattacharyya et al, 2010). To improve the initial ODEC design, three different rational design strategies were used. In the first approach, residue frequency based methods were used to design a construct named ODECConsensus. In another approach, a cyclic permutant of ODEC (CycV4OD) was designed with new N and C termini in the flexible V4 loop. In the third approach the bridging sheet (BS) region was deleted from ODEC to form ODECΔBS. In Chapter 6 we have used hydrogen deuterium exchange-mass spectrometric analysis (HDX-MS) to study conformational flexibility of these fragment immunogens. These studies revealed that all the three immunogens show reduced conformational flexibility compared to ODEC. 5-7 protons remain protected up to 2 hours whereas for ODEC, exchange completes at 20 minutes. This reduced flexibility correlates with 6-20 fold tighter VRC01 binding relative to ODEC. In rabbit immunizations, all three constructs elicit significant gp120 titers as early as week 6 in the absence of any gp120 boost whereas ODEC shows significant gp120 titers only after two gp120 boosts. Week 24 sera elicited after immunization with ODECΔBS, ODECConsensus and CycV4OD boosted with gp120 show neutralization of multiple Tier 1 viruses from subtype B and C, whereas corresponding ODEC immunized animals failed to show a neutralizing response. This study demonstrates that reduced conformational flexibility correlates with better antigenicity and an improved immunogenicity profile for these fragment immunogens. Also we have used HDX-MS studies to one of the stem based HA fragment immunogen pH1HA10-foldon described previously (Mallajosyula et al, 2014) to do peptide finger printing and find regions of protein showing increased protection to hydrogen deuterium exchange and thus derive some structural insights about this trimeric fragment immunogen. Peptide mapping experiments show that the HA stem fragment peptides are exchanging rapidly with more than 90% exchange completing by 30 s for most of the peptides. The well folded foldon trimerization domain peptide shows a very slow exchange profile. A few of the HA peptides exchange slowly with 1-2 protons exchanging after 30 s. Fast exchange seen for this fragment immunogen may be due to truncation of the stem region leading to greater solvent accessibility of the trimer interface.||en_US