The usage of antigen-functionalized nanoparticles has become a major focus in the field of experimental HIV-1 vaccine research during the last decade. Various molecular mechanisms to couple native-like trimers of the HIV-1 envelope protein (Env) onto nanoparticle surfaces have been reported, but many come with disadvantages regarding the coupling efficiency and stability. In this study, a short amino acid sequence (“aldehyde-tag”) was introduced at the C-terminus of a conformationally stabilized native-like Env. The post-translational conversion of a tag-associated cysteine to formylglycine creates a site-specific aldehyde group without alteration of the Env antigenicity. This aldehyde group was further utilized for bioconjugation of Env trimers. We demonstrated that the low acidic environment necessary for this bioconjugation is not affecting the trimer conformation. Furthermore, we developed a two-step coupling method for pH-sensitive nanoparticles. To this end, we conjugated aldehyde-tagged Env with Propargyl-PEG-aminooxy linker (oxime ligation; Step-one) and coupled these conjugates by copper-catalyzed azide-alkyne cycloaddition (Click reaction; Step-two) to calcium phosphate nanoparticles (CaPs) functionalized with terminal azide groups. CaPs displaying orthogonally arranged Env trimers on their surface (o-CaPs) were superior in activation of Env-specific B-cells (in vitro) and induction of Env-specific antibody responses (in vivo) compared to CaPs with Env trimers coupled in a randomly oriented manner. Taken together, we present a reliable method for the site-specific, covalent coupling of HIV-1 Env native-like trimers to the surface of nanoparticle delivery systems. This method can be broadly applied for functionalization of nanoparticle platforms with conformationally stabilized candidate antigens for both vaccination and diagnostic approaches. STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE: During the last decade antigen-functionalized nanoparticles have become a major focus in the field of experimental HIV-1 vaccines. Rational design led to the production of conformationally stabilized HIV-1 envelope protein (Env) trimers – the only target for the humoral immune system. Various molecular mechanisms to couple Env trimers onto nanoparticle surfaces have been reported, but many come with disadvantages regarding the coupling efficiency and stability. In this paper, we describe a highly selective bio-conjugation of Env trimers to the surface of medically relevant calcium phosphate nanoparticles. This method maintains the native-like protein conformation and has a broad potential application in functionalization of nanoparticle platforms with stabilized candidate antigens (including stabilized spike proteins of coronaviruses) for both vaccination and diagnostic approaches.
Copyright © 2021. Published by Elsevier Ltd.