Improving the expression and purification of soluble, recombinant native-like HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein trimers by targeted sequence changes
env Gene Products, Human Immunodeficiency Virus
Soluble, recombinant native-like envelope glycoprotein (Env) trimers of various human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) genotypes are being developed for structural studies and as vaccine candidates aimed at the induction of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs). The prototypic design is designated SOSIP.664, but many HIV-1 env genes do not yield fully native-like trimers efficiently. One such env gene is CZA97.012 from a neutralization-resistant (tier 2) clade C virus. As appropriately purified, native-like CZA97.012 SOSIP.664 trimers induce autologous neutralizing antibodies (NAbs) efficiently in immunized rabbits, we sought to improve the efficiency with which they can be produced and to better understand the limitations to the original design. By using structure- and antigenicity-guided mutagenesis strategies focused on the V2 and V3 regions and the gp120-gp41 interface, we developed the CZA97 SOSIP.v4.2-M6.IT construct. Fully native-like, stable trimers that display multiple bNAb epitopes could be expressed from this construct in a stable CHO cell line and purified at an acceptable yield using either a PGT145 or a 2G12 bNAb affinity column. We also show that similar mutagenesis strategies can be used to improve the yields and properties of SOSIP.664 trimers of the DU422, 426c, and 92UG037 genotypes.IMPORTANCE Recombinant trimeric proteins based on HIV-1 env genes are being developed for future vaccine trials in humans. A feature of these proteins is their mimicry of the envelope glycoprotein (Env) structure on virus particles that is targeted by neutralizing antibodies, i.e., antibodies that prevent cells from becoming infected. The vaccine concept under exploration is that recombinant trimers may be able to elicit virus-neutralizing antibodies when delivered as immunogens. Because HIV-1 is extremely variable, a practical vaccine may need to incorporate Env trimers derived from multiple different virus sequences. Accordingly, we need to understand how to make recombinant trimers from many different env genes. Here, we show how to produce trimers from a clade C virus, CZA97.012, by using an array of protein engineering techniques to improve a prototypic construct. We also show that the methods may have wider utility for other env genes, thereby further guiding immunogen design.