Two types of reverse vaccinology (RV) should be distinguished: genome-based RV for bacterial vaccines and structure-based RV for viral vaccines. Structure-based RV consists in trying to generate a vaccine by first determining the crystallographic structure of a complex between a viral epitope and a neutralizing monoclonal antibody (nMab) and then reconstructing the epitope by reverse molecular engineering outside the context of the native viral protein. It is based on the unwarranted assumption that the epitope designed to fit the nMab will have acquired the immunogenic capacity to elicit a polyclonal antibody response with the same protective capacity as the nMab. After more than a decade of intensive research using this type of RV, this approach has failed to deliver an effective, preventive HIV-1 vaccine. The structure and dynamics of different types of HIV-1 epitopes and of paratopes are described. The rational design of an anti-HIV-1 vaccine is shown to be a misnomer since investigators who claim that they design a vaccine are actually only improving the antigenic binding capacity of one epitope with respect to only one paratope and not the immunogenic capacity of an epitope to elicit neutralizing antibodies. Because of the degeneracy of the immune system and the polyspecificity of antibodies, each epitope studied by the structure-based RV procedure is only one of the many epitopes that the particular nMab is able to recognize and there is no reason to assume that this nMab must have been elicited by this one epitope of known structure. Recent evidence is presented that the trimeric Env spikes of the virus possess such an enormous plasticity and intrinsic structural flexibility that it is it extremely difficult to determine which Env regions are the best candidate vaccine immunogens most likely to elicit protective antibodies.
Structure-Based Reverse Vaccinology Failed in the Case of HIV Because it Disregarded Accepted Immunological Theory.