Flagellin is a protein-based adjuvant that activates toll-like receptor (TLR) 5. Flagellin has been actively explored as vaccine adjuvants and carriers. Preclinical and clinical studies find flagellin-based vaccines have a risk to induce systemic adverse reactions potentially due to its overt activation of TLR5. To improve safety and immunogenicity of flagellin as vaccine carriers, FljB was displayed at high densities on hepatitis b core (HBc) virus-like particle (VLP) surface upon c/e1 loop insertion. FljB-HBc (FH) VLPs showed significantly reduced ability to activate TLR5 or induce systemic interleukin-6 release as compared to FljB. FH VLPs also failed to significantly increase rectal temperature of mice, while FljB could significantly increase rectal temperature of mice. These data indicated systemic safety of FljB could be significantly improved by high-density display on HBc VLP surface. Besides improved safety, FH VLPs and FljB similarly boosted co-administered ovalbumin immunization and FH VLPs were found to induce two-fold higher anti-FljB antibody titer than FljB. These data indicated preserved adjuvant potency and improved immunogenicity after high-density display of FljB on HBc VLP surface. Consistent with the high immunogenicity, FH VLPs were found to be more efficiently taken up by bone marrow-derived dendritic cells and stimulate more potent dendritic cell maturation than FljB. Lastly, FH VLPs were found to be a more immunogenic carrier than FljB, HBc VLPs, or the widely used keyhole limpet hemocyanin for nicotine vaccine development with a good local and systemic safety. Our data support FH VLPs to be a potentially safer and more immunogenic carrier than FljB for vaccine development.
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