EPFL scientists have developed a new computational approach to create artificial proteins, which showed promising results in vivo as functional vaccines. This approach opens the possibility to engineer safer and more effective vaccines.

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. The study has been published in the journal Science.

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.

Image Credit:  EPFL

Thanks to Heinz V. Hoenen.  Follow him on twitter: @HeinzVHoenen

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