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New Vaccine-Design Approach Targets Viruses Such as HIV


A team led by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) has unveiled a new technique for vaccine design that could be particularly useful against HIV and other fast-changing viruses.

New Vaccien Design HIV

The report, which appears March 28, 2013, in Science Express, the early online edition of the journal Science, offers a step toward solving what has been one of the central problems of modern vaccine design: how to stimulate the immune system to produce the right kind of antibody response to protect against a wide range of viral strains. The researchers demonstrated their new technique by engineering an immunogen (substance that induces immunity) that has promise to reliably initiate an otherwise rare response effective against many types of HIV.

“We’re hoping to test this immunogen soon in mice engineered to produce human antibodies, and eventually in humans,” said team leader William R. Schief, who is an associate professor of immunology and member of the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center at TSRI.

Seeking a Better Way

For highly variable viruses such as HIV and influenza, vaccine researchers want to elicit antibodies that protect against most or all viral strains — not just a few strains, as seasonal flu vaccines currently on the market. Vaccine researchers have identified several of these broadly neutralizing antibodies from long-term HIV-positive survivors, harvesting antibody-producing B cells from blood samples and then sifting through them to identify those that produce antibodies capable of neutralizing multiple strains of HIV. Such broadly neutralizing antibodies typically work by blocking crucial functional sites on a virus that are conserved among different strains despite high mutation elsewhere.

However, even with these powerful broadly neutralizing antibodies in hand, scientists need to find a way to elicit their production in the body through a vaccine. “For example, to elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies called VRC01-class antibodies that neutralize 90 percent of known HIV strains, you could try using the HIV envelope protein as your immunogen,” said Schief, “but you run into the problem that the envelope protein doesn’t bind with any detectable affinity to the B cells needed to launch a broadly neutralizing antibody response.”

To reliably initiate that VRC01-class antibody response, Schief and his colleagues therefore sought to develop a new method for designing vaccine immunogens.

From Weak to Strong

Joseph Jardine, a TSRI graduate student in the Schief laboratory, evaluated the genes of VRC01-producing B cells in order to deduce the identities of the less mature B cells — known as germline B cells — from which they originate. Germline B cells are major targets of modern viral vaccines, because it is the initial stimulation of these B cells and their antibodies that leads to a long-term antibody response.

In response to vaccination, germline B cells could, in principle, mature into the desired VRC01-producing B cells — but natural HIV proteins fail to bind or stimulate these germline B cells so they cannot get the process started. The team thus set out to design an artificial immunogen that would be successful at achieving this.

Jardine used a protein modeling software suite called Rosetta to improve the binding of VRC01 germline B cell antibodies to HIV’s envelope protein. “We asked Rosetta to look for mutations on the side of the HIV envelope protein that would help it bind tightly to our germline antibodies,” he said.

Rosetta identified dozens of mutations that could help improve binding to germline antibodies. Jardine then generated libraries that contained all possible combinations of beneficial mutations, resulting in millions of mutants, and screened them using techniques called yeast surface display and FACS. This combination of computational prediction and directed evolution successfully produced a few mutant envelope proteins with high affinity for germline VRC01-class antibodies.

Jardine then focused on making a minimal immunogen — much smaller than HIV envelope — and so continued development using the “engineered outer domain (eOD)” previously developed by Po-Ssu Huang in the Schief lab while Schief was at the University of Washington. Several iterative rounds of design and selection using a panel of germline antibodies produced a final, optimized immunogen — a construct they called eOD-GT6.

A Closer Look

To get a better look at eOD-GT6 and its interaction with germline antibodies, the team turned to the laboratory of Ian A. Wilson, chair of the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology and a member of the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center at TSRI.

Jean-Philippe Julien, a senior research associate in the Wilson laboratory, determined the 3D atomic structure of the designed immunogen using X-ray crystallography — and, in an unusual feat, also determined the crystal structure of a germline VRC01 antibody, plus the structure of the immunogen and antibody bound together.

“We wanted to know whether eOD-GT6 looked the way we anticipated and whether it bound to the antibody in the way that we predicted — and in both cases the answer was ‘yes’,” said Julien. “We also were able to identify the key mutations that conferred its reactivity with germline VRC01 antibodies.”

Mimicking a Virus

Vaccine researchers know that such an immunogen typically does better at stimulating an antibody response when it is presented not as a single copy but in a closely spaced cluster of multiple copies, and with only its antibody-binding end exposed. “We wanted it to look like a virus,” said Sergey Menis, a visiting graduate student in the Schief laboratory.

Menis therefore devised a tiny virus-mimicking particle made from 60 copies of an obscure bacterial enzyme and coated it with 60 copies of eOD-GT6. The particle worked well at activating VRC01 germline B cells and even mature B cells in the lab dish, whereas single-copy eOD-GT6 did not.

“Essentially it’s a self-assembling nanoparticle that presents the immunogen in a properly oriented way,” Menis said. “We’re hoping that this approach can be used not just for an HIV vaccine but for many other vaccines, too.”

The next step for the eOD-GT6 immunogen project, said Schief, is to test its ability to stimulate an antibody response in lab animals that are themselves engineered to produce human germline antibodies. The difficulty with testing immunogens that target human germline antibodies is that animals typically used for vaccine testing cannot make those same antibodies. So the team is collaborating with other researchers who are engineering mice to produce human germline antibodies. After that, he hopes to learn how to drive the response, from the activation of the germline B cells all the way to the production of mature, broadly neutralizing VRC01-class antibodies, using a series of designed immunogens.

Schief also hopes they will be able to test their germline-targeting approach in humans sooner rather than later, noting “it will be really important to find out if this works in a human being.”

The first authors of the paper, “Rational HIV immunogen design to target specific germline B cell receptors,” were Jardine, Julien and Menis. Co-authors were Takayuki Ota and Devin Sok of the Nemazee and Burton laboratories at TSRI, respectively; Travis Nieusma of the Ward laboratory at TSRI; John Mathison of the Ulevitch laboratory at TSRI; Oleksandr Kalyuzhniy and Skye MacPherson, researchers in the Schief laboratory from IAVI and TSRI, respectively; Po-Ssu Huang and David Baker of the University of Washington, Seattle; Andrew McGuire and Leonidas Stamatatos of the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute; and TSRI principal investigators Andrew B. Ward, David Nemazee, Ian A. Wilson, and Dennis R. Burton, who is also head of the IAVI Neutralizing Center at TSRI.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Scripps Research Institute.

Journal Reference:

Joseph Jardine, Jean-Philippe Julien, Sergey Menis, Takayuki Ota, Oleksandr Kalyuzhniy, Andrew McGuire, Devin Sok, Po-Ssu Huang, Skye MacPherson, Meaghan Jones, Travis Nieusma, John Mathison, David Baker, Andrew B. Ward, Dennis R. Burton, Leonidas Stamatatos, David Nemazee, Ian A. Wilson, and William R. Schief. Rational HIV Immunogen Design to Target Specific Germline B Cell Receptors. Science, 28 March 2013 DOI: 10.1126/science.1234150

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Scientists Characterize Protein Essential to Survival of Malaria Parasite

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment

A biology lab at Washington University has just cracked the structure and function of a protein that plays a key role in the life of a parasite that killed 655,000 people in 2010.

A cartoon based on the electron density map makes it easier to see the protein’s structure and figure out how it works. The enzyme’s job is to add a methyl group — three times — to a starting molecule as part of a process for making cell membranes. In this cartoon, the phosphate is a stand-in for the starting molecule and the green molecule is the one that donates a methyl group. Both are positioned in the active site of the enzyme, the pocket where the chemistry takes place. (Credit: Jez)

The protein is an enzyme that Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan that causes the most lethal form of malaria, uses to make cell membrane.

The protozoan cannot survive without this enzyme, but even though the enzyme has many lookalikes in other organisms, people do not make it. Together these characteristics make the enzyme an ideal target for new antimalarial drugs.

The research was published in the January 6 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) as “Paper of the Week” for that issue.

The work also will be featured in ASBMB Today (the newsletter of the American Society for Biological Molecular Biology, which publishes JBC).

Sweating the cold room

The protein’s structure might have remained an enigma, had it not been the “unreasonable optimism” of Joseph Jez, PhD, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, which carried his team through a six-year-long obstacle course of failures and setbacks.

“What my lab does is crystallize proteins so that we can see what they look like in three dimensions,” Jez says. “The idea is that if we know a protein’s structure, it will be easier to design chemicals that would target the protein’s active site and shut it down,” Jez says.

The latest discovery is the culmination of a project that began years before when Jez was working at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and collaborating with scientists at the local biotech startup Divergence. “At the time, C. elegans had just been sequenced and the Divergence scientists were looking at using it as an easy model to work out the biochemistry of parasitic nematodes,” Jez says.

C. elegans is a free-living nematode, or microscopic roundworm, but many nematodes are parasitic and cause disease in plants, livestock and people.

During this project, Lavanya Palavalli, a summer intern working with Jez, crystallized the C. elegans version of the enzyme. The job of the enzyme, phosphoethanolamine methyltransferase, thankfully abbreviated to PMT, is to add methyl groups to a starting molecule, phosophoethanolamine.

“When Soon Goo Lee later took up the project,” says Jez, “the plan was to try to grow better crystals of the C. elegans protein, ones good enough to get readable X-ray diffraction patterns.

Two years later, the crystals were looking better but still not good enough.

So Jez suggested that Lee go after homologous (look-alike) proteins in other organisms. “Even though the proteins are homologous, each has a different amino acid sequence and so will behave differently in the crystallizations,” Jez says. “Lee went from working with two C. elegans proteins to three plant proteins, two other nematode proteins and then the Plasmodium protein,” Jez says.

“He took all six of those PMT versions into the crystallization trials to maximize his odds,” Jez says.

“To crystallize a protein,” Jez says, “we put a solution of a salt or something else that might work as a desiccant in the bottom of a small well. And then we put a drop of our liquid protein on a microscope cover slip and flip it over the top of the well, so the drop of protein is hanging upside down in the well.”

“What we’re trying to do is to slowly withdraw water from the protein. It’s exactly like making rock candy, only in that case, the string hanging into the jar of sugar solution helps to withdraw water,” he says.

The difference is that sugar wants to form crystals and proteins are reluctant to do so.

“There are 24 wells to a tray, and we usually screen 500 wells per protein at first,” Jez says. “Lee had eight proteins and so his first pass was to screen 4,000 conditions. And then he had to try different combinations of ligands to the proteins and crystallize those. This is why it took a few years to finally get where he needed to go.”

Road trip!

 The scientists need crystals — preferably nice, big ones — to stick in the path of an X-ray beam at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. (If the crystal is a good one, and all the atoms are lined up in a repeating array, the scattered X-rays will produce a clear pattern of spots.)

Embedded in that pattern is the mathematical information needed to back-calculate to the position of the atoms in the protein, a process a bit like throwing a handful of pebbles in a lake and then calculating where they landed by the pattern of waves arriving at the shoreline.

Lee got the PMT from Haemonchus contortus to crystallize first, but there were technical issues with the diffraction pattern that would have made solving it technically and computationally very demanding.

“When the Plasmodium enzyme finally crystallized, Soon got four crystals kind of stacked on top of each other and each of them was paper thin,” Jez says.

“I never thought it would work, but we took them to Argonne anyway and he actually did surgery under the microscope and cracked off a little tiny piece of it.”

To everyone’s surprise, he got a clean diffraction pattern from the crystal. “Because the Plasmodium enzyme was the smallest one and the easiest to work on, we pushed that one first,” Jez says.

The moment of truth

“Once we had a Plasmodium crystal that was diffracting really well, we could try back-calculating to see whether we could extract the atom positions from the data,” Jez says.

After the computer finished its calculations, Lee clicked a mouse button to see the results, which would reveal whether his years of work finally would pay off.

When Lee clicked the mouse, he got an electron density map in exceptionally sharp focus.

“When you see a map like that, it’s like suddenly the wind has kicked up and you’re sailing free,” Jez says, “because there’s this moment, like, before you click that button, no one has ever seen how this protein is put together in three dimensions. You’re the first person to ever see it.

“The irony of it is we got such good quality diffraction pattern and electron density maps off such an ugly crystal,” he says.

Lock and load

“Once you have the electron density map, the task is to build a structure that matches the amino acid sequence of the protein,” Jez says.

“The first thing you do is put in the amino acid backbones and connect them together to form a chain. It’s like having a long thread, each inch of which is an amino acid, and your job is to take that thread and move it in three dimensions through that electron density map.”

The next step is to add the side chains that make one amino acid different from another, Jez says. “The amino acid sequence is known,” he says. “Your goal is to match the way you string together the amino acids in the electron density map to that sequence.”

“Once you have the overall structure, you can start to figure out how the enzyme works. The PMT enzyme is trying to join two molecules,” Jez says. “To do that, it has to lock them in place so that the chemistry can happen, and then it has to let go of them.

“We think the protein has a lid that opens and closes,” he says. “The active site stays open until the substrates enter, and then the lid clamps down, and when it clamps down it actually puts the substrates together.”

Calling Bill and Melinda Gates

Not only do infections by Plasmodium falciparum cause the most severe form of malaria, about 40 percent of the human population lives in areas where the parasite is endemic. Moreover, drugs that used to be effective against malaria are beginning to fail, in part because widespread drug counterfeiting has led to resistance.

New anti-malarial drugs are desperately needed, and the PMT protein is an ideal target. If PMT is disabled, the protozoan can’t make cell membranes and it dies. Moreover, a drug that would kill Plasmodium might have minimal side effects on patients.

Although the process of identifying compounds that would target PMT is in the early stages, a handful of anti-parasitical compounds used to treat diseases are known to block PMT as well.

As for Lee, he has had a hard go of it, but now things are breaking his way. Plasmodium PMT is giving up its secrets, and the plant and nematode PMTs are coming along as well.

When he clicked the mouse button and a clean electron density map came up, he says, it was like seeing “the light at the end of a five-year-long tunnel.”

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Washington University in St. Louis.

Journal Reference:

S. G. Lee, Y. Kim, T. D. Alpert, A. Nagata, J. M. Jez.Structure and Reaction Mechanism of Phosphoethanolamine Methyltransferase from the Malaria Parasite Plasmodium falciparum: AN ANTIPARASITIC DRUG TARGETJournal of Biological Chemistry, 2011; 287 (2): 1426 DOI:10.1074/jbc.M111.315267