In view of the high antigenic variability of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), a vaccine against AIDS must induce an immune response to epitopes as invariable as possible among the various virus strains and clones. Previously the highly conserved six amino acid sequence Glu-Leu-Asp-Lys-Trp-Ala (ELDKWA) from gp41, defining the epitope of the human MAb 2F5, was shown to elicit HIV-1-neutralizing antibodies when presented on haemagglutinin of influenza virus. We investigated the immunogenic potential of the MAb 2F5 epitope and two of its major escape epitopes as internal fusions to the hepatitis B virus (HBV) surface antigen (HBsAg). Recombinant HBsAg-HIV proteins produced in the methylotrophic yeast self-assembled into 22 nm lipoprotein particles. Mice immunized with these particles developed an anti-HBsAg immune response in a range that is considered to be protective against HBV infection in humans. More importantly, antisera had extremely high titres of antibodies reactive with a structurally flexible form of the HIV-1 epitope, whereby strong cross-reactivity with the escape variants of the epitope was observed. Although HIV-1 gp160 and the ectodomain of gp41 containing the epitope were significantly recognized, the antisera failed to neutralize HIV-1 . These data, together with those on the haemagglutinin-ELDKWAS fusion suggest that the ability of the MAb 2F5 epitope to induce neutralizing antibodies depends on the molecular context in which it is presented. Therefore, further characterization of secondary and tertiary structure requirements of the epitope is indispensable for the full exploitation of its potential as a vaccine component.


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