Several conserved neutralizing epitopes have been identified in the HIV Env protein and among these, the MPER of gp41 has received great attention and is widely recognized as a promising target. However, little success has been achieved in eliciting MPER-specific HIV neutralizing antibodies by a number of different vaccine strategies. We investigated the ability of HA/gp41 chimeric protein-based vaccines, which were designed to enhance the exposure of the MPER in its native conformation, to induce MPER-specific HIV neutralizing antibodies. In characterization of the HA/gp41 chimeric protein, we found that by mutating an unpaired Cys residue (Cys-14) in its HA1 subunit to a Ser residue, the modified chimeric protein HA-C14S/gp41 showed increased reactivity to a conformation-sensitive monoclonal antibody against HA and formed more stable trimers in VLPs. On the other hand, HA-C14S/gp41 and HA/gp41 chimeric proteins expressed on the cell surfaces exhibited similar reactivity to monoclonal antibodies 2F5 and 4E10. Immunization of guinea pigs using the HA-C14S/gp41 DNA or VLP vaccines induced antibodies against the HIV gp41 as well as to a peptide corresponding to a segment of MPER at higher levels than immunization by standard HIV VLPs. Further, sera from vaccinated guinea pigs were found to exhibit HIV neutralizing activities. Moreover, sera from guinea pigs vaccinated by HA-C14S/gp41 DNA and VLP vaccines but not the standard HIV VLPs, were found to neutralize HIV pseudovirions containing a SIV-4E10 chimeric Env protein. The virus neutralization could be blocked by a MPER-specific peptide, thus demonstrating induction of MPER-specific HIV neutralizing antibodies by this novel vaccine strategy. These results show that induction of MPER-specific HIV neutralizing antibodies can be achieved through a rationally designed vaccine strategy
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