BACKGROUND & AIMS: A prophylactic vaccine is required to eliminate HCV as a global public health threat. We developed whole virus inactivated HCV vaccine candidates employing a licensed adjuvant. Further, we investigated the effects of HCV envelope protein modifications (to increase neutralization epitope exposure) on immunogenicity.
METHODS: Whole virus vaccine antigen was produced in Huh7.5 hepatoma cells, processed using a multistep protocol and formulated with adjuvant (MF-59 analogue AddaVax or aluminium hydroxide). We investigated the capacity of IgG purified from the serum of immunized BALB/c mice to neutralize genotype 1-6 HCV (by virus neutralization assays) and to bind homologous envelope proteins (by ELISA). Viruses used for immunizations were (i) HCV5aHi with strain SA13 envelope proteins and modification of an O-linked glycosylation site in E2 (T385P), (ii) HCV5aHi(T385) with reversion of T385P to T385, featuring the original E2 sequence determined in vivo and (iii) HCV5aHi(ΔHVR1) with deletion of HVR1. For these viruses, epitope exposure was investigated using human monoclonal (AR3A and AR4A) and polyclonal (C211 and H06) antibodies in neutralization assays.
RESULTS: Processed HCV5aHi formulated with AddaVax induced antibodies that efficiently bound homologous envelope proteins and broadly neutralized cultured genotype 1-6 HCV, with half maximal inhibitory concentrations of between 14 and 192 μg/ml (mean of 36 μg/ml against the homologous virus). Vaccination with aluminium hydroxide was less immunogenic. Compared to HCV5aHi(T385) with the original E2 sequence, HCV5aHi with a modified glycosylation site and HCV5aHi(ΔHVR1) without HVR1 showed increased neutralization epitope exposure but similar immunogenicity.
CONCLUSION: Using an adjuvant suitable for human use, we developed inactivated whole HCV vaccine candidates that induced broadly neutralizing antibodies, which warrant investigation in further pre-clinical studies.
LAY SUMMARY: A vaccine against hepatitis C virus (HCV) is needed to prevent the estimated 2 million new infections and 400,000 deaths caused by this virus each year. We developed inactivated whole HCV vaccine candidates using adjuvants licensed for human use, which, following immunization of mice, induced antibodies that efficiently neutralized all HCV genotypes with recognized epidemiological importance. HCV variants with modified envelope proteins exhibited similar immunogenicity as the virus with the original envelope proteins.