Use of the piggyBac transposon to create HIV-1 gag transgenic insect cell lines for continuous VLP production

BACKGROUND: Insect baculovirus-produced Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) Gag virus-like-particles (VLPs) stimulate good humoral and cell-mediated immune responses in animals and are thought to be suitable as a vaccine candidate. Drawbacks to this production system include contamination of VLP preparations with baculovirus and the necessity for routine maintenance of infectious baculovirus stock. We used piggyBac transposition as a novel method to create transgenic insect cell lines for continuous VLP production as an alternative to the baculovirus system. RESULTS: Transgenic cell lines maintained stable gag transgene integration and expression up to 100 cell passages, and although the level of VLPs produced was low compared to baculovirus-produced VLPs, they appeared similar in size and morphology to baculovirus-expressed VLPs. In a murine immunogenicity study, whereas baculovirus-produced VLPs elicited good CD4 immune responses in mice when used to boost a prime with a DNA vaccine, no boost response was elicited by transgenically produced VLPs. CONCLUSION: Transgenic insect cells are stable and can produce HIV Pr55 Gag VLPs for over 100 passages: this novel result may simplify strategies aimed at making protein subunit vaccines for HIV. Immunogenicity of the Gag VLPs in mice was less than that of baculovirus-produced VLPs, which may be due to lack of baculovirus glycoprotein incorporation in the transgenic cell VLPs. Improved yield and immunogenicity of transgenic cell-produced VLPs may be achieved with the addition of further genetic elements into the piggyBac integron.