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National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Monday, Sept. 27, 2010

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NIH Scientists Freeze Virus Fragment in Shape Recognized by Immune System

Development Has Implications for Vaccine Design

One approach to an HIV vaccine is to teach the immune system to recognize certain protein structures on the viral surface and produce antibodies that bind to those structures and neutralize HIV. A strategy for designing such a vaccine involves identifying the key viral surface structures, snipping them off and developing a method to present these fragments to the immune system. When some parts of the surface of HIV are removed, however, they change shape such that antibodies no longer recognize and bind to them. A research team led by investigators at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has developed a strategy to overcome this problem. The strategy has implications for scientists designing vaccines for HIV/AIDS as well as for other viral diseases.

The team has fashioned a technique for extracting an antibody-recognizable portion of the surface of a virus and placing this surface fragment, known as an epitope, into a computer-designed protein scaffold. The scaffold locks the epitope in the shape recognized by the immune system. In theory, when a fixed epitope is introduced into an animal model (or, eventually, a person), the immune system recognizes the epitope and makes antibodies against it. These antibodies could serve as an army ready to bind to the invading virus and prevent it from causing infection.

To demonstrate this scaffolding technique, the scientists applied it to a shape-changing epitope on the surface of HIV that is recognized by an HIV-neutralizing antibody known as 2F5. The epitope adopts a helical or spiral shape when removed from the surface of HIV, but the 2F5 antibody-recognizable version of this epitope has an irregular, kinked shape. The scientists placed copies of the kinked epitope into scaffolds that locked it in that form. Then the researchers injected these scaffold-bound epitopes into guinea pigs. In response, the animals’ immune systems made antibodies very similar to 2F5 that bound tightly to the epitope.

This study demonstrates that the engineering of protein scaffolds can be a potentially useful approach in vaccine design. The NIAID researchers are continuing to refine this technique and apply it to the design of vaccines for HIV/AIDS as well as other infectious diseases.

G Ofek et al. Elicitation of structure-specific antibodies by epitope scaffolds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1004728107 (2010).

Dr. Peter Kwong, chief of the structural biology section of the NIAID Vaccine Research Center, is available to discuss the findings.

To schedule interviews, please contact Laura Sivitz Leifman, 301-402-1663,

NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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Last Updated September 27, 2010

Last Reviewed September 20, 2010