Chimeric hepatitis B and C viruses envelope proteins can form subviral particles: implications for the design of new vaccine strategies.

The hepatitis B virus (HBV) envelope protein (S) self-assembles into subviral particles used as commercial vaccines against hepatitis B. These particles are excellent carriers for foreign epitopes, which can be inserted into the external hydrophilic loop or at the N- or C-terminal end of the HBV S protein. We show here that the N-terminal transmembrane domain (TMD) of HBV S can be replaced by the TMDs of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) envelope proteins E1 and E2, to generate fusion proteins containing the entire HCV E1 or E2 sequence that are efficiently coassembled with the HBV S into particles. This demonstrates the remarkable tolerance of the HBV S protein to sequence substitutions conserving its subviral particle assembly properties. These findings may have implications for the design of new vaccine strategies based on the use of HBV subviral particles as carriers for various transmembrane proteins and produced using the same industrial procedures that are established for the HBV vaccine.