A pinboard by
Dr. Kayla Sprenger

Postdoctoral Associate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


My research combines principles from physics, engineering, and biology to develop a cure for HIV.

The difficulty of creating a safe and effective vaccine against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is stressed by the fact that the first HIV efficacy study to be carried out anywhere in the world in the past seven years is just now taking place in South Africa. While the highest rates of HIV infection occur in South Africa with more than 1,000 people becoming infected each day, HIV is a global epidemic with a clear and urgent need for a solution. The highly mutable nature of HIV is the greatest challenge in developing a vaccine against it; every new virus produced by a cell infected with HIV will vary from the original infecting virus by one amino acid mutation on average. Thus, an effective HIV vaccine will likely need to protect against many diverse strains of the original infecting virus. Recently, antibodies (Abs) that can “broadly-neutralize” a wide range of HIV strains – so-called “bNAbs” – have been isolated from rare AIDS patients. These findings prove that the human immune system can evolve defenses against HIV, and suggest that a rationally designed vaccine and optimum immunization protocol could be successful in treating and preventing HIV infection on a global scale.

Important studies have been performed to study bNAb evolution during natural infection and to design immunization strategies for stimulating this evolution. However, several key questions remain that my research aims to address. Using the tools of statistical mechanics, evolutionary dynamics, and available experimental data, I perform simulations that investigate the mechanisms by which antibodies evolve mutations through a process called affinity maturation (AM) to increase their binding affinity to foreign invaders, and study how this evolution can be directed towards the production of bNAbs against HIV. With a deeper understanding of how AM occurs, we can then leverage this information to design the actual vaccine components (i.e., immunogens) that will most effectively elicit bNAb evolution. In concert with immunogen design, my research aims to determine how best to administer these vaccine components (e.g., as a mixture vs. sequentially) to design an optimum immunization protocol against HIV. If successful, my research will lead to new understanding of the adaptive immune response to different immunization strategies that can be used to guide vaccine design against HIV and other highly mutable pathogens for which there is currently no universal vaccine (e.g., influenza).


Optimal Combinations of Broadly Neutralizing Antibodies for Prevention and Treatment of HIV-1 Clade C Infection.

Abstract: The identification of a new generation of potent broadly neutralizing HIV-1 antibodies (bnAbs) has generated substantial interest in their potential use for the prevention and/or treatment of HIV-1 infection. While combinations of bnAbs targeting distinct epitopes on the viral envelope (Env) will likely be required to overcome the extraordinary diversity of HIV-1, a key outstanding question is which bnAbs, and how many, will be needed to achieve optimal clinical benefit. We assessed the neutralizing activity of 15 bnAbs targeting four distinct epitopes of Env, including the CD4-binding site (CD4bs), the V1/V2-glycan region, the V3-glycan region, and the gp41 membrane proximal external region (MPER), against a panel of 200 acute/early clade C HIV-1 Env pseudoviruses. A mathematical model was developed that predicted neutralization by a subset of experimentally evaluated bnAb combinations with high accuracy. Using this model, we performed a comprehensive and systematic comparison of the predicted neutralizing activity of over 1,600 possible double, triple, and quadruple bnAb combinations. The most promising bnAb combinations were identified based not only on breadth and potency of neutralization, but also other relevant measures, such as the extent of complete neutralization and instantaneous inhibitory potential (IIP). By this set of criteria, triple and quadruple combinations of bnAbs were identified that were significantly more effective than the best double combinations, and further improved the probability of having multiple bnAbs simultaneously active against a given virus, a requirement that may be critical for countering escape in vivo. These results provide a rationale for advancing bnAb combinations with the best in vitro predictors of success into clinical trials for both the prevention and treatment of HIV-1 infection.

Pub.: 31 Mar '16, Pinned: 04 Apr '18

Hyperglycosylated stable core immunogens designed to present the CD4 binding site are preferentially recognized by broadly neutralizing antibodies.

Abstract: The HIV-1 surface envelope glycoprotein (Env) trimer mediates entry into CD4(+) CCR5(+) host cells. Env possesses conserved antigenic determinants, such as the gp120 primary receptor CD4 binding site (CD4bs), a known neutralization target. Env also contains variable regions and protein surfaces occluded within the trimer that elicit nonneutralizing antibodies. Here we engineered additional N-linked glycans onto a cysteine-stabilized gp120 core (0G) deleted of its major variable regions to preferentially expose the conformationally fixed CD4bs. Three, 6, 7, and 10 new NXT/S glycan (G) motifs were engineered into 0G to encode 3G, 6G, 7G, and 10G cores. Following purification, most glycoproteins, except for 10G, were recognized by broadly neutralizing CD4bs-directed antibodies. Gel and glycan mass spectrometry confirmed that additional N-glycans were posttranslationally added to the redesigned cores. Binding kinetics revealed high-affinity recognition by seven broadly neutralizing CD4bs-directed antibodies and low to no binding by non-broadly neutralizing CD4bs-directed antibodies. Rabbits inoculated with the hyperglycosylated cores elicited IgM and IgG responses to each given protein that were similar in their neutralization characteristics to those elicited by parental 0G. Site-specific glycan masking effects were detected in the elicited sera, and the antisera competed with b12 for CD4bs-directed binding specificity. However, the core-elicited sera showed limited neutralization activity. Trimer priming or boosting of the core immunogens elicited tier 1-level neutralization that mapped to both the CD4bs and V3 and appeared to be trimer dependent. Fine mapping at the CD4bs indicated that conformational stabilization of the cores and addition of N-glycans altered the molecular surface of Env sites of vulnerability to neutralizing antibody, suggesting an explanation for why the elicited neutralization was not improved by this rational design strategy.Major obstacles to developing an effective HIV-1 vaccine include the variability of the envelope surface glycoproteins and its high-density glycan shield, generated by incorporation of host (human) glycosylation. HIV-1 does harbor highly conserved sites on the exposed envelope protein surface of gp120, one of which is the virus receptor (CD4) binding site. Several broadly neutralizing antibodies elicited from HIV patients do target this gp120 CD4 binding site (CD4bs); however, gp120 immunogens do not elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies. In this study, we targeted the CD4bs by conformational stabilization and additional glycan masking. We used the atomic-level structure to reengineer gp120 cores to preferentially present the cysteine-stabilized CD4bs and to mask (by glycan) nonneutralizing determinants. Importantly, glycan masking did successfully focus antibody responses to the CD4bs; however, the elicited CD4bs-directed antibodies did not neutralize HIV or bind to unmodified gp120, presumably due to the structure-guided modifications of the modified gp120 core.

Pub.: 26 Sep '14, Pinned: 04 Apr '18

A limited number of antibody specificities mediate broad and potent serum neutralization in selected HIV-1 infected individuals.

Abstract: A protective vaccine against HIV-1 will likely require the elicitation of a broadly neutralizing antibody (bNAb) response. Although the development of an immunogen that elicits such antibodies remains elusive, a proportion of HIV-1 infected individuals evolve broadly neutralizing serum responses over time, demonstrating that the human immune system can recognize and generate NAbs to conserved epitopes on the virus. Understanding the specificities that mediate broad neutralization will provide insight into which epitopes should be targeted for immunogen design and aid in the isolation of broadly neutralizing monoclonal antibodies from these donors. Here, we have used a number of new and established technologies to map the bNAb specificities in the sera of 19 donors who exhibit among the most potent cross-clade serum neutralizing activities observed to date. The results suggest that broad and potent serum neutralization arises in most donors through a limited number of specificities (1-2 per donor). The major targets recognized are an epitope defined by the bNAbs PG9 and PG16 that is associated with conserved regions of the V1, V2 and V3 loops, an epitope overlapping the CD4 binding site and possibly the coreceptor binding site, an epitope sensitive to a loss of the glycan at N332 and distinct from that recognized by the bNAb 2G12 and an epitope sensitive to an I165A substitution. In approximately half of the donors, key N-linked glycans were critical for expression of the epitopes recognized by the bNAb specificities in the sera.

Pub.: 12 Aug '10, Pinned: 04 Apr '18

Optimal Sequential Immunization Can Focus Antibody Responses against Diversity Loss and Distraction.

Abstract: Affinity maturation is a Darwinian process in which B lymphocytes evolve potent antibodies to encountered antigens and generate immune memory. Highly mutable complex pathogens present an immense antigenic diversity that continues to challenge natural immunity and vaccine design. Induction of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) against this diversity by vaccination likely requires multiple exposures to distinct but related antigen variants, and yet how affinity maturation advances under such complex stimulation remains poorly understood. To fill the gap, we present an in silico model of affinity maturation to examine two realistic new aspects pertinent to vaccine development: loss in B cell diversity across successive immunization periods against different variants, and the presence of distracting epitopes that entropically disfavor the evolution of bnAbs. We find these new factors, which introduce additional selection pressures and constraints, significantly influence antibody breadth development, in a way that depends crucially on the temporal pattern of immunization (or selection forces). Curiously, a less diverse B cell seed may even favor the expansion and dominance of cross-reactive clones, but only when conflicting selection forces are presented in series rather than in a mixture. Moreover, the level of frustration due to evolutionary conflict dictates the degree of distraction. We further describe how antigenic histories select evolutionary paths of B cell lineages and determine the predominant mode of antibody responses. Sequential immunization with mutationally distant variants is shown to robustly induce bnAbs that focus on conserved elements of the target epitope, by thwarting strain-specific and distracted lineages. An optimal range of antigen dose underlies a fine balance between efficient adaptation and persistent reaction. These findings provide mechanistic guides to aid in design of vaccine strategies against fast mutating pathogens.

Pub.: 31 Jan '17, Pinned: 30 Aug '17