Mosquito-borne chikungunya virus (CHIKV) is a positive-sense, single-stranded RNA virus from the genus Alphavirus, family Togaviridae, which causes fever, rash and severe persistent polyarthralgia in humans. Since there are currently no FDA licensed vaccines or antiviral therapies for CHIKV, the development of vaccine candidates is of critical importance. Historically, live-attenuated vaccines (LAVs) for protection against arthropod-borne viruses have been created by blind cell culture passage leading to attenuation of disease, while maintaining immunogenicity. Attenuation may occur via multiple mechanisms. However, all examined arbovirus LAVs have in common the acquisition of positively charged amino acid substitutions in cell-surface attachment proteins that render virus infection partially dependent upon heparan sulfate (HS), a ubiquitously expressed sulfated polysaccharide, and appear to attenuate by retarding dissemination of virus particles in vivo. We previously reported that, like other wild-type Old World alphaviruses, CHIKV strain, La Réunion, (CHIKV-LR), does not depend upon HS for infectivity. To deliberately identify CHIKV attachment protein mutations that could be combined with other attenuating processes in a LAV candidate, we passaged CHIKV-LR on evolutionarily divergent cell-types. A panel of single amino acid substitutions was identified in the E2 glycoprotein of passaged virus populations that were predicted to increase electrostatic potential. Each of these substitutions was made in the CHIKV-LR cDNA clone and comparisons of the mutant viruses revealed surface exposure of the mutated residue on the spike and sensitivity to competition with the HS analog, heparin, to be primary correlates of attenuation in vivo. Furthermore, we have identified a mutation at E2 position 79 as a promising candidate for inclusion in a CHIKV LAV.
With the adaptation of chikungunya virus (CHIKV) to transmission by the Aedes albopictus mosquito, a pandemic has occurred resulting in four to six million human infections, and the virus continues to become endemic in new regions, most recently in the Caribbean. CHIKV can cause debilitating polyarthralgia, lasting for weeks to years, and there are currently no licensed vaccines or antiviral therapies available. While an investigational live-attenuated vaccine (LAV) exists, problems with reactogenicity have precluded its licensure. The purpose of the current study was to: i) devise an in vitro passage procedure that reliably generates a panel of CHIKV envelope glycoprotein mutations for screening as vaccine candidates; ii) determine the position of the mutations in the three-dimensional structure of the alphavirus spike complex and their effect on electrostatic potential; iii) determine the attenuation characteristics of each mutation in a murine model of CHIKV musculoskeletal disease; and iv) to identify in vitro assays examining the dependency of infection upon HS that correlate with attenuation and localization in the glycoprotein spike. This approach provides a paradigm for the rational design of future LAVs for CHIKV and other mosquito-borne viruses, by deliberately selecting and combining attenuating processes.