Efficient Production of Chimeric Hepatitis B Virus-Like Particles Bearing an Epitope of Hepatitis E Virus Capsid by Transient Expression in Nicotiana benthamiana.

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The core antigen of hepatitis B virus (HBcAg) is capable of self-assembly into virus-like particles (VLPs) when expressed in a number of heterologous systems. Such VLPs are potential carriers of foreign antigenic sequences for vaccine design. In this study, we evaluated the production of chimeric HBcAg VLPs presenting a foreign epitope on their surface, the 551-607 amino acids (aa) immunological epitope of the ORF2 capsid protein of hepatitis E virus. A chimeric construct was made by the insertion of 56 aa into the immunodominant loop of the HBcAg. The sequences encoding the chimera were inserted into the pEAQ-HT vector and infiltrated into Nicotiana benthamiana leaves. The plant-expressed chimeric HBcHEV ORF2 551-607 protein was recognized by an anti-HBcAg mAb and anti-HEV IgG positive swine serum. Electron microscopy showed that plant-produced chimeric protein spontaneously assembled into “knobbly” ~34 nm diameter VLPs. This study shows that HBcAg is a promising carrier platform for the neutralizing epitopes of hepatitis E virus (HEV) and the chimeric HBcAg/HEV VLPs could be a candidate for a bivalent vaccine.