18-May-2020 - Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Designing vaccines from artificial proteins

De novo protein design enables the precise induction of RSV-neutralizing antibodies

Vaccines are one of the most effective interventions to prevent the spreading of infectious diseases. They trigger the immune system to produce antibodies that protect us against infection. However, we still lack efficacious vaccines for many important pathogens, like the flu or dengue fever. "When a vaccine doesn't work well, we tend to think that it's because the antibodies produced are not protective," says Bruno Correia, a professor at the Laboratory of Protein Design & Immunoengineering (LPDI) in EPFL's School of Engineering. "It's usually because our immune system is simply making the wrong type of antibodies". Scientists in Correia's lab have now developed a strategy to design artificial proteins that very precisely instruct the body's immune system which antibodies to produce.

Building proteins like Legos

The EPFL team created artificial proteins designed using computational methods. "They don't exist in nature," says Che Yang, a PhD student and co-leading author in the study.

"We developed a protein design algorithm called TopoBuilder. It lets you construct proteins virtually as if you were putting Lego bricks together. Assembling artificial proteins that have novel functions is absolutely fascinating." says Fabian Sesterhenn, a PhD student and co-leading author.

A disease without a vaccine

Correia's team focused on the design of de novo proteins that can result in a vaccine for the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV causes serious lung infections and is a leading cause of hospitalization in infants and the elderly, "Despite several decades of research, up to today there is still no vaccine or cure for respiratory syncytial virus," says Correia.

The artificial proteins were created in the laboratory and then tested in animal models, and triggered the immune system to produce specific antibodies against weak spots in RSV. "Our findings are encouraging because they indicate that one day we will be able to design vaccines that target specific viruses more effectively, by prompting the immune system to generate those particular antibodies," says Correia. "We still have a lot of work ahead to make the vaccine we developed more effective - this study is a first step in that direction."

Methods for creating de novo proteins have applications well beyond immunology - they can also be used in various branches of biotechnology to expand the structural and functional range of natural proteins. "We can now use the protein design tools to create proteins for other biomedical applications such as protein-based drugs or functionalized biomaterials," concludes Sesterhenn.

Facts, background information, dossiers
  • respiratory syncyti…
More about Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
  • News

    Emergence of calorie burning fat cells

    1.9 billion people in the world are overweight. Of these, 650 million people are obese, which increases the risk of secondary diseases such as high blood pressure or cancer. Professor Martin Klingenspor and his team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) examine how our fat metabolism ... more

    Predicting a protein's behavior from its appearance

    Proteins are the building blocks of life and play a key role in all biological processes. Understanding how they interact with their environment is therefore vital to developing effective therapeutics and the foundation for designing artificial cells. Researchers at the Laboratory of Protei ... more

    On the way to nanotheranostics

    Theranostics is an emerging field of medicine whose name is a combination of "therapeutics" and "diagnostics". The idea behind theranostics is to combine drugs and/or techniques to simultaneously - or sequentially - diagnose and treat medical conditions, and also monitor the response of the ... more

  • Videos

    The Gates of Serotonin

    EPFL scientists have elucidated for the first time how a notoriously elusive serotonin receptor functions with atom-level detail. The receptor transmits electrical signals in neurons and is involved in various disorders, meaning that the discovery opens the way for new treatments. The recep ... more