One reason why subunit protein and DNA vaccines are often less immunogenic than live-attenuated and whole-inactivated virus vaccines is that they lack the co-stimulatory signals provided by various components of the more complex vaccines. The HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein complex (Env) is no exception to this rule. Other factors that limit the induction of neutralizing antibodies against HIV-1 lie in the structure and instability of Env. We have previously stabilized soluble trimeric mimics of Env by introducing a disulfide bond between gp120 and gp41 and adding a trimer stabilizing mutation in gp41 (SOSIP.R6 gp140). We further stabilized the SOSIP.R6 gp140 using a GCN4-based isoleucine zipper motif, creating SOSIP.R6-IZ gp140. In order to target SOSIP.R6-IZ to immune cells, including dendritic cells, while at the same time activating these cells, we fused SOSIP.R6-IZ to the active domain of CD40 ligand (CD40L), which may serve as a 'cis-adjuvant'. The Env component of the SOSIP.R6-IZ-CD40L fusion construct bound to CD4 and neutralizing antibodies, while the CD40L moiety interacted with CD40. Furthermore, the chimeric molecule was able to signal efficiently through CD40 and induce maturation of human dendritic cells. Dendritic cells secreted IL-6, IL-10 and IL-12 in response to stimulation by SOSIP.R6-IZ-CD40L and were able to activate naïve T cells. Chimeric HIV-1 gp140 - CD40L trimers can target and activate dendritic cells. Targeting and activating immune cells using CD40L and other 'cis-adjuvants' may improve subunit protein vaccine immunogenicity for HIV-1 and other infectious diseases.
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