Enhanced Mucosal Immune Responses Induced by a Combined Candidate Mucosal Vaccine Based on Hepatitis A Virus and Hepatitis E Virus Structural Proteins Linked to Tuftsin

Hepatitis A virus (HAV) and Hepatitis E virus (HEV) are the most common causes of infectious hepatitis. These viruses are spread largely by the fecal-oral route and lead to clinically important disease in developing countries. To evaluate the potential of targeting hepatitis A and E infection simultaneously, a combined mucosal candidate vaccine was developed with the partial open reading frame 2 (ORF2) sequence (aa 368–607) of HEV (HE-ORF2) and partial virus protein 1 (VP1) sequence (aa 1–198) of HAV (HA-VP1), which included the viral neutralization epitopes. Tuftsin is an immunostimulatory peptide which can enhance the immunogenicity of a protein by targeting it to macrophages and dendritic cells. Here, we developed a novel combined protein vaccine by conjugating tuftsin to HE-ORF2 and HA-VP1 and used synthetic CpG oligodeoxynucleotides (ODNs) as the adjuvant. Subsequent experiments in BALB/c mice demonstrated that tuftsin enhanced the serum-specific IgG and IgA antibodies against HEV and HAV at the intestinal, vaginal and pulmonary interface when delivered intranasally. Moreover, mice from the intranasally immunized tuftsin group (HE-ORF2-tuftsin + HA-VP1-tuftsin + CpG) showed higher levels of IFN-γ-secreting splenocytes (Th1 response) and ratio of CD4+/CD8+ T cells than those of the no-tuftsin group (HE-ORF2 + HA-VP1 + CpG). Thus, the tuftsin group generated stronger humoral and cellular immune responses compared with the no-tuftsin group. Moreover, enhanced responses to the combined protein vaccine were obtained by intranasal immunization compared with intramuscular injection. By integrating HE-ORF2, HA-VP1 and tuftsin in a vaccine, this study validated an important concept for further development of a combined mucosal vaccine against hepatitis A and E infection.