HIV/AIDS is the world's foremost human epidemic. Historically, preventive vaccines that elicit neutralizing antibodies have achieved the greatest impact in curtailing epidemics. HIV-1 has thwarted modern vaccine technology by both eluding and destroying the host immune system. Critical viral epitopes are masked by glycosylation, exposed only fleetingly, or mutagenized beyond recognition. However, amidst this human immune system failure there have emerged rare but effective antibodies that broadly neutralize HIV-1 by targeting its juxtamembrane fusion apparatus. Thus, despite the historical failure to generate immunogens that elicit clinically effective anti-HIV-1 antibodies, we know from those relatively rare humans who naturally produce them that this goal is mechanistically and immunologically achievable. Several naturally-occurring anti-HIV antibodies specifically recognize structured amino acid sequences of gp41, a dynamic fusion protein that adopts a continuum of conformational changes during the process of HIV-1 infection. Fueled by fresh insights from the structural biology of these epitopes and their antibody interactions, the present challenge is to recreate the virulent face of HIV-1 and transform it into an Achilles'heel. This proposal aims to apply a novel chemical technology, termed hydrocarbon stapling, which both reinforces the bioactive structure of natural peptides and confers unprecedented protease resistance, to develop Stabilized Antigenic Structures of gp41 (SAS-gp41) for HIV-1 vaccination. Once synthesized, the stapled antigens, modeled after the membrane proximal external region of gp41, will be rigorously tested and optimized for neutralization-competent structure, functional binding activity, in vitro and in vivo stability, immunogenicity, and HIV-1 neutralizing antibody response. By operating at the interface of chemistry, structural biology, pharmacology, and HIV immunology, we hope to transform HIV-1 from virion to immunogen.
As we pass the quarter-century mark of the HIV-1 pandemic, developing an HIV-1 vaccine remains an intractable challenge. We propose that proper education of the immune system will require the development of sturdy and structured immunogens that faithfully reconstitute the virulent conformation of HIV polypeptides. To initiate a new path toward a human HIV-1 vaccine, we will deploy a multidisciplinary strategy to synthesize, characterize, and optimize structurally-reinforced antigens for HIV-1 vaccination using our new hydrocarbon stapling technology that endows natural peptides with bioactive shape and unprecedented stability.
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