The membrane proximal external region (MPER) of the HIV-1 glycoprotein gp41 is targeted by the broadly neutralizing antibodies 2F5 and 4E10. To date, no immunization regimen in animals or humans has produced HIV-1 neutralizing MPER-specific antibodies. We immunized llamas with gp41-MPER proteoliposomes and selected a MPER-specific single chain antibody (VHH), 2H10, whose epitope overlaps with that of mAb 2F5. Bi-2H10, a bivalent form of 2H10, which displayed an approximately 20-fold increased affinity compared to the monovalent 2H10, neutralized various sensitive and resistant HIV-1 strains, as well as SHIV strains in TZM-bl cells. X-ray and NMR analyses combined with mutagenesis and modeling revealed that 2H10 recognizes its gp41 epitope in a helical conformation. Notably, tryptophan 100 at the tip of the long CDR3 is not required for gp41 interaction but essential for neutralization. Thus bi-2H10 is an anti-MPER antibody generated by immunization that requires hydrophobic CDR3 determinants in addition to epitope recognition for neutralization similar to the mode of neutralization employed by mAbs 2F5 and 4E10.
Due to the absence of an effective vaccine or cure for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), HIV-1 infections still result in high mortality. Two antibodies, 2F5 and 4E10, previously isolated from HIV-1 infected patients, prevent infections by binding to the MPER of gp41, a part of the virus that is difficult to access and only transiently exposed. Here, we immunized llamas with a gp41-based immunogen and subsequently isolated a small antibody fragment (VHH) that can easily access and recognize the MPER. We showed that a unit of two VHH, named bi-2H10, was indeed capable of preventing HIV-1 from infecting cells. We determined the three dimensional structure of the VHH and mapped its interaction site to an MPER region that overlaps with the 2F5 epitope. The 2H10 VHH displays a membrane binding component important for neutralization that resembles that of 2F5. In conclusion, we have developed an immunogen and a small antibody that may have great potential for development of novel anti-HIV/AIDS vaccines and treatments.