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DNA Immunization With Japanese Encephalitis Virus Nonstructural Protein NS1 Elicits Protective Immunity In Mice

Yi-Ling Lin, Li-Kuang Chen, Ching-Len Liao, Chia-Tsui Yeh, Shiou-Hwa Ma, Jin-Ling Chen, Yue-Ling Huang, Shih-Shun Chen, Hsien-Yuan Chiang

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ABSTRACT Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV), a mosquito-borne flavivirus, is a zoonotic pathogen that is prevalent in some Southeast Asian countries and causes acute encephalitis in humans. To evaluate the potential application of gene immunization to JEV infection, we characterized the immune responses from mice intramuscularly injected with plasmid DNA encoding JEV glycoproteins, including the precursor membrane (prM) plus envelope (E) proteins and the nonstructural protein NS1. When injected with the plasmid expressing prM plus E, 70% of the immunized mice survived after a lethal JEV challenge, whereas when immunized with the plasmid expressing NS1, 90% of the mice survived after a lethal challenge. As a control, the mice immunized with the DNA vector pcDNA3 showed a low level (40%) of protection, suggesting a nonspecific adjuvant effect of the plasmid DNA. Despite having no detectable neutralizing activity, the NS1 immunization elicited a strong antibody response exhibiting cytolytic activity against JEV-infected cells in a complement-dependent manner. By contrast, immunization with a construct expressing a longer NS1 protein (NS1′), containing an extra 60-amino-acid portion from the N terminus of NS2A, failed to protect mice against a lethal challenge. Biochemical analyses revealed that when individually expressed, NS1 but not NS1′ could be readily secreted as a homodimer in large quantity and could also be efficiently expressed on the cell surface. Interestingly, when NS1 and NS1′ coexisted in cells, the level of NS1 cell surface expression was much lower than that in cells expressing NS1 alone. These data imply that the presence of partial NS2A might have a negative influence on an NS1-based DNA vaccine. The results herein clearly illustrate that immunization with DNA expressing NS1 alone is sufficient to protect mice against a lethal JEV challenge.