Background: GMMA from Gram-negative bacteria are an attractive vaccine technology, but lipopolysaccharide (LPS) reactogenicity limits use.
Results: Genetic LPS modification resulting in penta-acylation reduced Shigella GMMA reactogenicity to a TLR2-mediated limit. Modifications resulting in palmitoleoylated hexa-acylated LPS triggered higher TLR4-mediated reactogenicity.
Conclusion: Use of GMMA as vaccines will likely require LPS penta-acylation.
Significance: Understanding the relative contribution of TLR activation guides GMMA vaccine development.
Outer membrane particles from Gram-negative bacteria are attractive vaccine candidates as they present surface antigens in their natural context. We previously developed a high yield production process for genetically derived particles, called generalized modules for membrane antigens (GMMA), from Shigella. As GMMA are derived from the outer membrane, they contain immunostimulatory components, especially lipopolysaccharide (LPS). We examined ways of reducing their reactogenicity by modifying lipid A, the endotoxic part of LPS, through deletion of late acyltransferase genes, msbB or htrB, in GMMA-producing Shigella sonnei and Shigella flexneri strains. GMMA with resulting penta-acylated lipid A from the msbB mutants showed a 600-fold reduced ability, and GMMA from the S. sonnei ΔhtrB mutant showed a 60,000-fold reduced ability compared with GMMA with wild-type lipid A to stimulate human Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) in a reporter cell line. In human peripheral blood mononuclear cells, GMMA with penta-acylated lipid A showed a marked reduction in induction of inflammatory cytokines (S. sonnei ΔhtrB, 800-fold; ΔmsbB mutants, 300-fold). We found that the residual activity of these GMMA is largely due to non-lipid A-related TLR2 activation. In contrast, in the S. flexneri ΔhtrB mutant, a compensatory lipid A palmitoleoylation resulted in GMMA with hexa-acylated lipid A with ∼10-fold higher activity to stimulate peripheral blood mononuclear cells than GMMA with penta-acylated lipid A, mostly due to retained TLR4 activity. Thus, for use as vaccines, GMMA will likely require lipid A penta-acylation. The results identify the relative contributions of TLR4 and TLR2 activation by GMMA, which need to be taken into consideration for GMMA vaccine development.