Cervical cancer is caused by infection with human papillomaviruses (HPV) and is a global concern, particularly in developing countries, which have ~80% of the burden. HPV L1 virus-like particle (VLP) type–restricted vaccines prevent new infections and associated disease. However, their high cost has limited their application, and cytological screening programmes are still required to detect malignant lesions associated with the nonvaccine types. Thus, there is an urgent need for cheap second-generation HPV vaccines that protect against multiple types. The objective of this study was to express novel HPV-16 L1-based chimaeras, containing cross-protective epitopes from the L2 minor capsid protein, in tobacco plants. These L1/L2 chimaeras contained epitope sequences derived from HPV-16 L2 amino acid 108–120, 56–81 or 17–36 substituted into the C-terminal helix 4 (h4) region of L1 from amino acid 414. All chimaeras were expressed in Nicotiana benthamiana via an Agrobacterium-mediated transient system and targeted to chloroplasts. The chimaeras were highly expressed with yields of ~1.2 g/kg plant tissue; however, they assembled differently, indicating that the length and nature of the L2 epitope affect VLP assembly. The chimaera containing L2 amino acids 108–120 was the most successful candidate vaccine. It assembled into small VLPs and elicited anti-L1 and anti-L2 responses in mice, and antisera neutralized homologous HPV-16 and heterologous HPV-52 pseudovirions. The other chimaeras predominantly assembled into capsomeres and other aggregates and elicited weaker humoral immune responses, demonstrating the importance of VLP assembly for the immunogenicity of candidate vaccines.
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