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    Development of virus-like particles as immunogens for HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein
    Gonelli, Christopher Andrew ( 2017)
    A prophylactic vaccine eliciting broadly neutralising antibody (bNAb) responses against HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein (Env) would be optimal to prevent HIV-1 transmission. Replication incompetent HIV-1 virus-like particles (VLPs) offer the opportunity to present virion-associated Env with a native-like structure to the immune system to elicit humoral responses against Env. VLP-associated Env better resembles the viral membrane-bound Env encountered by the immune system during HIV-1 infection than recombinant forms of the glycoprotein. This is likely to be critical for induction of bNAb responses. As Env is highly glycosylated, the expression of VLPs bearing a native N-linked glycosylation profile is also important, especially since many known monoclonal bNAbs incorporate N-linked glycans (N-glycans) into their epitopes. The glycosylation profile of Env is heterogeneous with both populations of typical mammalian N-glycans (complex) and under-processed forms (high-mannose). Furthermore, this profile differs depending on the format of Env used, with virus-associated Env bearing predominantly high-mannose N-glycans whereas recombinant Env is decorated with a greater proportion of complex N-glycans. Here, the viral and expression system factors potentially influencing the differing glycosylation profile were investigated. Recombinant AD8 strain gp120 Env was found to bear a greater proportion of high-mannose N-glycans than when expressed on a viral membrane. The virus-associated Env glycosylation was not influenced by the presence of HIV-1 accessory proteins nor the cell-culture conditions during virus expression. Comparison of the glycosylation profile of recombinant and virus-associated Env using the AD8 and JR-CSF strains, suggested that distinct N-glycan profiles may not be universally conserved for all HIV-1 isolates, although further analysis on a wider range of Env strains is required to confirm this observation. An existing single-plasmid VLP expression vector, based upon DNA T cell vaccine plasmids that were proven safe in human trials, was optimised to maximise Env incorporation and particle budding. The unmodified expression cassette generated VLPs with incomplete protease-mediated cleavage of group specific antigen (Gag) and were irregularly sized. The introduction of alternative mutations that completely removed the reverse transcriptase domain, but preserved most other safety mutations, enabled efficient production of protease-processed, mature-form VLPs (mVLPs). Trimeric Env that presented multiple bNAb epitopes was incorporated into mVLPs, which were capable of viral fusion activity at a level approaching that of wild-type virions. The incorporation of Env into mVLPs was increased by replacing the Env transmembrane and cytoplasmic tail domains with those of influenza haemagglutinin (HA-TMCT). The presentation of bNAb epitopes on the HA-TMCT-modified Env was retained, with the exception of some membrane-proximal epitopes. The mVLP-associated Env was stabilised via the introduction of a trimerisation point mutation and disulfide bonds between Env subunits (SOSIP), which improved the presentation of quaternary bNAb epitopes and diminished the exposure of poorly neutralising antibody sites. Vaccination with mVLPs elicited a broader range of Env-specific antibody isotypes than Env presented on immature VLPs or extracellular vesicles. The mVLPs bearing HA-TMCT-modified Env consistently induced anti-Env antibody responses that mediated modest neutralisation activity. These mVLPs are potentially useful immunogens for eliciting neutralising antibody responses that target native Env epitopes on fully-infectious HIV-1 virions.