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Why Does the Molecular Structure of Broadly Neutralizing Monoclonal Antibodies Isolated from Individuals Infected with HIV-1 not Inform the Rational Design of an HIV-1 Vaccine?

CNRS, UMR7242 - Institut de Recherche de l'Ecole de Biotechnologie de Strasbourg (IREBS), Université de Strasbourg, Illkirch 67400, France

Special Issues: Overcoming the barriers that impede HIV vaccine development and testing

It is commonly assumed that neutralizing Mabs that bind to the HIV-1 Env glycoprotein are more specific reagents than anti-HIV-1 polyclonal antisera and that knowledge of the structure of these Mabs facilitates the rational design of effective HIV-1 vaccine immunogens. However, after more than ten years of unsuccessful experimentation using the structure-based reverse vaccinology approach, it is now evident that it is not possible to infer from the structure of neutralizing Mabs which HIV immunogens induced their formation nor which vaccine immunogens will elicit similar Abs in an immunized host. The use of Mabs for developing an HIV-1 vaccine was counterproductive because it overlooked the fact that the apparent specificity of a Mab very much depends on the selection procedure used to obtain it and also did not take into account that an antibody is never monospecific for a single epitope but is always polyspecific for many epitopes. When the rationale of the proponents of the unsuccessful rational design strategy is analyzed, it appears that investigators who claim they are designing a vaccine immunogen are only improving the binding reactivity of a single epitope-paratope pair and are not actually designing an immunogen able to generate protective antibodies. The task of a designer consists in imagining what type of immunogen is likely to elicit a protective immune response but in the absence of knowledge regarding which features of the immune system are responsible for producing a functional neutralizing activity in antibodies, it is not feasible to intentionally optimize a potential immunogen candidate in order to obtain the desired outcome. The only available option is actually to test possible solutions by trial-and-error experiments until the preset goal is perhaps attained. Rational design and empirical approaches in HIV vaccine research should thus not be opposed as alternative options since empirical testing is an integral part of a so-called design strategy.
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