The breadth of HIV-1 neutralizing antibodies depends on the conservation of key sites in their epitopes.


Developing HIV-1 vaccines that trigger broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) is a priority as bnAbs are considered key to elicitation of a protective immune response. To investigate whether the breadth of a neutralizing antibody (nAb) depended on the conservation of its epitope among circulating viruses, we examined Antibody:Envelope (Ab:Env) interactions and worldwide Env diversity. We found that sites corresponding to bnAb epitopes were as variable as other accessible, non-hypervariable Env sites (p = 0.50, Mann-Whitney U-test) with no significant relationship between epitope conservation and neutralization breadth (Spearman's ρ = -0.44, adjusted p = 0.079). However, when accounting for key sites in the Ab:Env interaction, we showed that the broadest bnAbs targeted more conserved epitopes (Spearman's ρ = -0.70, adjusted p = 5.0e-5). Neutralization breadth did not stem from the overall conservation of Ab epitopes but depended instead on the conservation of key sites of the Ab:Env interaction, revealing a mechanistic basis for neutralization breadth that could be exploited for vaccine design.

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