Viral subunit vaccines often contain immunodominant non-neutralizing epitopes that divert host immune responses. These epitopes should be eliminated in vaccine design, but there is no reliable method for evaluating an epitope's capacity to elicit neutralizing immune responses. Here we introduce a new concept 'neutralizing immunogenicity index' (NII) to evaluate an epitope's neutralizing immunogenicity. To determine the NII, we mask the epitope with a glycan probe and then assess the epitope's contribution to the vaccine's overall neutralizing immunogenicity. As proof-of-concept, we measure the NII for different epitopes on an immunogen comprised of the receptor-binding domain from MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Further, we design a variant form of this vaccine by masking an epitope that has a negative NII score. This engineered vaccine demonstrates significantly enhanced efficacy in protecting transgenic mice from lethal MERS-CoV challenge. Our study may guide the rational design of highly effective subunit vaccines to combat MERS-CoV and other life-threatening viruses.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Physics and Astronomy(all)
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)