BACKGROUND: Virus-like particles (VLPs) are highly immunogenic and proven to induce protective immunity. The small surface antigen (HBsAg-S) of hepatitis B virus (HBV) self-assembles into VLPs and its use as a vaccine results in protective antiviral immunity against HBV infections. Chimeric HBsAg-S proteins carrying foreign epitopes allow particle formation and have the ability to induce anti-foreign humoral and cellular immune responses.
METHODS/RESULTS: The insertion of the hypervariable region 1 (HVR1) sequence derived from the envelope protein 2 (E2) of hepatitis C virus (HCV) into the major antigenic site of HBsAg-S (‘a’-determinant) resulted in the formation of highly immunogenic VLPs that retained the antigenicity of the inserted HVR1 sequence. BALB/c mice were immunized with chimeric VLPs, which resulted in antisera with anti-HCV activity. The antisera were able to immunoprecipitate native HCV envelope complexes (E1E2) containing homologous or heterologous HVR1 sequences. HCV E1E2 pseudotyped HIV-1 particles (HCVpp) were used to measure entry into HuH-7 target cells in the presence or absence of antisera that were raised against chimeric VLPs. Anti-HVR1 VLP sera interfered with entry of entry-competent HCVpps containing either homologous or heterologous HVR1 sequences. Also, immunizations with chimeric VLPs induced antisurface antigen (HBsAg) antibodies, indicating that HBV-specific antigenicity and immunogenicity of the ‘a’-determinant region is retained.
CONCLUSIONS: A multivalent vaccine against different pathogens based on the HBsAg delivery platform should be possible. We hypothesize that custom design of VLPs with an appropriate set of HCV-neutralizing epitopes will induce antibodies that would serve to decrease the viral load at the initial infecting inoculum.