HPV mass production promises to drive vaccine research

Related tags Human papillomavirus

A technique that boosts the laboratory production of human
papillomavirus by 1,000 times compared to existing methods could
accelerate research into new treatments for HPV infection, which
causes genital warts and cervical cancer, reports Phil

The discovery, published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (13 June edition), might also be used to boost yields of HPV and potentially other hard to study viruses, which could improve the production of vaccine components.

HPV, which exists in more than 100 forms, is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection. At least 50 per cent of sexually active men and women will acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives and, by age 50, HPV will have colonized four out of every five women.

Although the infection is usually harmless, certain types of HPV are responsible for nearly all cases of cervical cancer, while other types contribute to about a quarter of head and neck cancers and some skin cancers. A more common, less virulent form of the virus causes genital warts.

The primary obstacle to producing HPV in the laboratory has been that in the early stage of its infective cycle, the virus lurks in undifferentiated basal epithelial (skin) cells, said Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Paul Ahlquist, who led the team,

Once there, it remains in a diffuse form at low levels, limiting its visibility to the immune system. Only after the epithelial cells begin differentiating does the virus emerge as distinct, infective viral particles, called virions. Infectious HPV virus particles could only be obtained by laboriously differentiating cultured cells into artificial skin. This process takes weeks, and produces small amounts of virions, which permitted only limited study of the virus.

"The available culture techniques limited the ability to study critical early stages of infection,"​ said Ahlquist. "We couldn't pursue a number of experimental approaches because of the small amounts of virus available."

"Also, we were restricted in genetically manipulating the virus because the available approaches required a fully functional viral genome to make infectious virus."

Two discoveries made it possible to develop a mass-production technique for the virus. Researchers had long known that the HPV capsid proteins, which were necessary for virion formation, could self-assemble. Also, scientists at the US National Institutes of Health recently found that by introducing the genes for these self-assembling capsid proteins into cells along with smaller pieces of target DNA, the target genes could be packaged into viral like particles.

Based on these findings, Ahlquist and his colleagues developed a technique by which they could introduce the full HPV genome along with the genes for HPV capsid proteins into human cells and manipulate them to produce active, infectious viral particles. The resulting technique enables the scientists to produce over a thousand times more infectious virus per culture dish and takes only two days, he said.

Importantly, the system successfully produces multiple types of HPV. The researchers plan to use their production technique to study the early process of infection and to search for vulnerabilities in that process, said Ahlquist.

"The early stages of infection - before the virus becomes established - could be a very important phase for intervention,"​ he said.

Ahlquist also said that the production technique could offer a way to screen for HPV antiviral drugs and could lead to enhanced vaccines that consist of live attenuated virus. "Current vaccines in clinical trials consist of capsid proteins and trigger an immune response to those proteins,"​ he said. "However, in its earliest stage, papillomavirus does not express those proteins, making the virus invisible to that immune response."

A sufficiently non-virulent, attenuated virus that would express early gene products could raise additional immune responses against the virus in other stages of its life cycle. Such a vaccine, he suggested, could offer further important advantages against HPV and its associated cancers.

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