Human noroviruses (NoVs) are the primary cause of acute gastroenteritis and are characterized by antigenic variation between genogroups and genotypes and antigenic drift of strains within the predominant GII.4 genotype. In the context of this diversity, an effective NoV vaccine must elicit broadly protective immunity. We used an antibody (Ab) binding blockade assay to measure the potential cross-strain protection provided by a multivalent NoV virus-like particle (VLP) candidate vaccine in human volunteers.
Methods and Findings
Sera from ten human volunteers immunized with a multivalent NoV VLP vaccine (genotypes GI.1/GII.4) were analyzed for IgG and Ab blockade of VLP interaction with carbohydrate ligand, a potential correlate of protective immunity to NoV infection and illness. Immunization resulted in rapid rises in IgG and blockade Ab titers against both vaccine components and additional VLPs representing diverse strains and genotypes not represented in the vaccine. Importantly, vaccination induced blockade Ab to two novel GII.4 strains not in circulation at the time of vaccination or sample collection. GII.4 cross-reactive blockade Ab titers were more potent than responses against non-GII.4 VLPs, suggesting that previous exposure history to this dominant circulating genotype may impact the vaccine Ab response. Further, antigenic cartography indicated that vaccination preferentially activated preexisting Ab responses to epitopes associated with GII.4.1997. Study interpretations may be limited by the relevance of the surrogate neutralization assay and the number of immunized participants evaluated.
Vaccination with a multivalent NoV VLP vaccine induces a broadly blocking Ab response to multiple epitopes within vaccine and non-vaccine NoV strains and to novel antigenic variants not yet circulating at the time of vaccination. These data reveal new information about complex NoV immune responses to both natural exposure and to vaccination, and support the potential feasibility of an efficacious multivalent NoV VLP vaccine for future use in human populations.
Lisa Lindesmith and colleagues assess the potential of a candidate virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine to induce antibody responses to antigenically divergent norovirus strains.
Worldwide, noroviruses cause one in five cases of viral gastroenteritis (often called stomach flu or winter vomiting disease), the symptoms of which include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There is no specific treatment for infection with these highly contagious viruses, and no established approach to vaccine development. While most people recover from the symptoms of norovirus infection within a few days, young children and the elderly may become severely ill or die. An estimated annual 300 million cases of norovirus infection contribute to roughly 260,000 deaths, mostly among this vulnerable demographic and mostly in low-income countries. Like influenza viruses, many noroviruses are evolving via a process known as antigenic drift. Antigens are components of infectious agents (including viruses) that are recognized by antibodies, proteins that bind to and neutralize foreign invaders. Over time, noroviruses develop small changes in their antigens that allow them to escape from antibodies produced in response to earlier infections. Every two to four years, because of accumulated antigenic drift, a new strain of norovirus emerges to which the human population has no direct antibody immunity, and an outbreak occurs. Because vaccines usually contain a component of the infectious agent that stimulates immunity, antigenic drift complicates the process of vaccine development. To be worth the cost and effort, a norovirus vaccine must confer immunity against a diverse range of norovirus strains, ideally including strains beyond those represented within the vaccine itself.
Partly because there is not a reliable method for growing noroviruses in the laboratory, recent efforts have focused on developing candidate vaccines using virus-like particles (VLPs). VLPs are constructed from laboratory-generated molecules of the virus’s capsid (outer shell). These capsid proteins self-assemble into icosahedral VLPs, which resemble the viral shell. VLPs cannot infect people or cause illness, but because they contain viral antigens, they can induce the immune system to produce antibodies that may neutralize actual viruses. VLPs can also be used to study the antibodies that people produce in response to vaccination or infection.
Why Was This Study Done?
VLP-based vaccines are relatively new, and their capacity to elicit a broad immune response conferring protection to an evolving range of norovirus strains is not established. One VLP vaccine based on a single strain that circulates primarily in children conferred immunity to that strain. Another, multivalent (containing a mix of VLPs from more than one strain) VLP vaccine elicited antibody generation, but in a phase I clinical trial did not confer immunity to infection by a strain that had previously circulated globally. In the current study, the researchers explored two key questions using laboratory analysis of blood samples drawn from participants in that trial. First, they tested whether the vaccine elicits antibody responses to a broad range of norovirus strains, as antibody responses can provide clues to the potential for this type of vaccine to confer broad immunity in the future. Second, they investigated how preexisting exposure to noroviruses affects the immune system’s response to a vaccine—strategic information that could aid in future vaccine development.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers tested serum (blood without cells or clotting proteins; serum contains the antibodies generated by the immune system) collected from ten participants receiving one injection of the VLP vaccine followed by a second injection 28 days later. They analyzed the serum specimens for antibodies to vaccine VLPs and also to VLPs representing viruses that were not contained in the vaccine. They used two methods, both utilizing VLPs generated from 11 norovirus strains: a traditional method that assesses binding of serum antibodies to each of these VLPs, and a more recent method that assays the ability of antibodies to block the interaction of each VLP with a molecule on intestinal cells that binds to the virus (the gut epithelial ligand), enabling norovirus to enter and infect cells. Prior studies suggest that this latter assay may be a better proxy for actual immunity.
The researchers’ major finding is that a multivalent VLP vaccine (two VLPs representing four strains of norovirus: one from a subgroup called genotype GI.1 and another consensus VLP of three strains from the subgroup GII.4) can rapidly elicit serum antibodies that bind a range of vaccine and non-vaccine VLPs, and that block binding of these VLPs to the gut epithelial ligand. Notably, vaccine recipients also generated antibodies reactive to two novel VLPs representing human noroviruses that they could not have previously encountered, indicating that prior exposure to each norovirus strain was not required for the full antibody response following vaccination. However, based on an analysis of which specific epitopes (small regions on an antigen) the population of antibodies binds, the authors report that antibody responses to the vaccine prominently target epitopes of a 1997 strain of human GII.4 norovirus, and propose that exposure history does influence the antibody response.
What Do these Findings Mean?
These findings raise the possibility that the VLP vaccine may induce immunity not only to norovirus strains that have caused past outbreaks, but also to variants that have yet to enter the population—a necessary attribute given the antigenic drift observed among noroviruses. The study also indicates that VLP-induced antibody responses to norovirus are consistent with the “antigenic seniority” model, in which strains to which an individual was previously exposed influence the binding properties of a vaccine-induced antibody population. This latter finding may influence the design of future norovirus vaccines.
These results must be interpreted cautiously, particularly as they pertain to the potential for a norovirus vaccine to protect against natural infection. The study is small, and antibody binding and blocking assays may not replicate how the immune system of a vaccine recipient will respond to true norovirus infection. Additionally, the study participants were all adults aged 18 to 49 years, while a vaccine is most needed for young children (who account for the majority of severe infections) and the elderly (who are most likely to die from infection). Unlike the study participants, young children lack preexisting antibodies to norovirus. Older people are more likely to have been previously exposed to norovirus, but may show attenuated immune responses to vaccination. Adapting to the different immune responses of these two groups remains a central challenge to norovirus vaccine development.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001807.
The World Health Organization provides a comprehensive description of the disease burden from diarrheal disease
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia has a page on viral gastroenteritis (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on disease trends and outbreaks
The US Department of Health and Human Services offers guidance for prevention based on food safety
A 2014 interview with Academic Editor Benjamin Lopman explores the difficulty of developing a norovirus vaccine
The authors have previously published findings on the evolution of norovirus strains in PLOS Medicine and have discussed the challenges of norovirus therapeutic design in PLOS Pathogens