Developing novel Hepatitis B Vaccines for immunotherapy

Project Overview


HBV infects millions of people globally and is the leading cause of liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer.  Drug therapies are available to suppress viral replication, but in most cases therapy must be continued indefinitely. This means they are not used in resource poor setting where the burden of disease is highest.

Over recent years our laboratory has built up extensive expertise in the fine mapping and functional analysis of T cell immune responses to pathogens, particularly in the context of chronic disease, and in the generation of T cell vaccines based on viral vectored technology. Our observations have been taken forward into phase-II efficacy studies of novel HCV vaccines used in prime-boost strategies. In parallel we have established novel viral sequencing technologies in collaboration with the WTCHG. We now wish to apply these technologies to the study of HBV with the immediate aim of developing immunotherapeutic strategies for HBV infection.

The project

This DPhil will aim to: 

  1. Generate an MVA virally vectored vaccine encoding multiple HCV antigens that are driven by distinct promotors and will generate both antiviral T and B cells. In this, the successful applicant will work closely with an experienced post doctoral scientist in post.
  2. Mutate the HBV polymerase in the vaccine immunogen (so that polymerase function is lost), and assess polymerase functionality in in-vitro HBV replicon systems. 
  3. Establish a pre-clinical animal model of HBV infection in the laboratory, and assess vaccine immunogenicity in both naive and HBV infected pre-clinical models. These experiments will be performed with and without the co-administration of check point modulators.
  4. In parallel, T cell mapping experiments using peptides targeting the whole HBV genome will identify HBV antigenic targets in small but carefully defined patient cohorts. 

By the end of the DPhil, the aim is to have generated candidate HBV vaccines that may be taken through to human studies.

Weighting of aims 1-3 above may be tailored to meet the interests of the applicant.

Training Opportunities

This studentship will be based at the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research (PMB) equipped with state-of-the art facilities, Cat-3 laboratories, and dedicated laboratory space for vaccine development. The PMB houses around 150 scientists working on HIV, HCV, influenza, TB, malaria and dengue. The research groups led by Barnes, Frater, Klenerman, Goulder, Phillips, and Dustin, and are internationally recognised. Academic excellence is reflected in recent major papers in Nature, Science and the NEJM. In the latest RAE the Infection and Immunity research element of the return was the strongest in the Medical Sciences Division at Oxford. Visiting speakers of international repute host lectures here regularly.

The candidate will also benefit from integration with investigators at the Jenner institute (the primary supervisor is a Jenner Investigator) benefiting from the vast expertise in translational vaccinology within this outstanding institution.

The successful candidate will present at weekly local laboratory meetings and national and international scientific meetings.

The supervisor and two post-doctoral scientists will work closely with the successful candidate providing careful mentorship.


Immunology & Infectious Disease and Tropical Medicine & Global Health


Project reference number: 653

Funding and admissions information


Name Department Institution Country Email
Professor Ellie (Eleanor) Barnes Experimental Medicine Division Oxford University, Peter Medawar Building GBR
Professor Paul Klenerman Experimental Medicine Division Oxford University, Peter Medawar Building GBR

Barnes E. 2015. Therapeutic vaccines in HBV: lessons from HCV. Med. Microbiol. Immunol., 204 (1), pp. 79-86. Read abstract | Read more

Currently, millions of people infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV) are committed to decades of treatment with anti-viral therapy to control viral replication. However, new tools for immunotherapy that include both viral vectors and molecular checkpoint inhibitors are now available. This has led to a resurgence of interest in new strategies to develop immunotherapeutic strategies with the aim of inducing HBeAg seroconversion--an end-point that has been associated with a decrease in the rates of disease progression. Ultimately, a true cure will involve the elimination of covalently closed circular DNA which presents a greater challenge for immunotherapy. In this manuscript, I describe the development of immunotherapeutic strategies for HBV that are approaching or currently in clinical studies, and draw on observations of T cell function in natural infection supported by recent animal studies that may lead to additional rational vaccine strategies using checkpoint inhibitors. I also draw on our recent experience in developing potent vaccines for HCV prophylaxis based on simian adenoviral and MVA vectors used in prime-boost strategies in both healthy volunteers and HCV infected patients. I have shown that the induction of T cell immune responses is markedly attenuated when administered to people with persistent HCV viremia. These studies and recently published animal studies using the woodchuck model suggest that potent vaccines based on DNA or adenoviral vectored vaccination represent a rational way forward. However, combining these with drugs to suppress viral replication, alongside checkpoint inhibitors may be required to induce long-term immune control. Hide abstract

Kelly C, Swadling L, Brown A, Capone S, Folgori A, Salio M, Klenerman P, Barnes E. 2015. Cross-reactivity of hepatitis C virus specific vaccine-induced T cells at immunodominant epitopes. Eur. J. Immunol., 45 (1), pp. 309-16. Read abstract | Read more

Viral diversity is a challenge to the development of a hepatitis C virus (HCV) vaccine. Following vaccination of humans with adenoviral vectors, we determined the capacity of T cells to target common viral variants at immundominant epitopes ex vivo. We identified two major variants for epitopes NS3(1073) and NS3(1446), and multiple variants for epitope NS3(1406) that occurred in >5% of genotype 1 and 3 sequences at a population level. Cross-reactivity of vaccine-induced T cells was determined using variant peptides in IFN-γ ELISPOT assays. Vaccine-induced T cells targeted approximately 90% of NS3(1073) genotype 1 sequences and 50% of NS3(1446) genotype 1 and 3 sequences. For NS3(1406), 62% of subtype-1b sequences were targeted. Next, we assessed whether an in vitro priming system, using dendritic cells and T cells from healthy donors, could identify a variant of NS3(1406) that was maximally cross-reactive. In vitro priming assays showed that of those tested the NS3(1406) vaccine variant was the most immunogenic. T cells primed with genotype 1 variants from subtype 1a or 1b were broadly cross-reactive with other variants from the same subtype. We conclude that immunization with candidate HCV adenoviral vaccines generates cross-reactive T cells at immunodominant epitopes. The degree of cross-reactivity varies between epitopes and may be HCV-subtype specific. Hide abstract

Swadling L, Capone S, Antrobus RD, Brown A, Richardson R, Newell EW, Halliday J, Kelly C, Bowen D, Fergusson J, Kurioka A, Ammendola V, Del Sorbo M, Grazioli F, Esposito ML, Siani L, Traboni C, Hill A, Colloca S, Davis M, Nicosia A, Cortese R, Folgori A, Klenerman P, Barnes E. 2014. A human vaccine strategy based on chimpanzee adenoviral and MVA vectors that primes, boosts, and sustains functional HCV-specific T cell memory. Sci Transl Med, 6 (261), pp. 261ra153. Read abstract | Read more

A protective vaccine against hepatitis C virus (HCV) remains an unmet clinical need. HCV infects millions of people worldwide and is a leading cause of liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer. Animal challenge experiments, immunogenetics studies, and assessment of host immunity during acute infection highlight the critical role that effective T cell immunity plays in viral control. In this first-in-man study, we have induced antiviral immunity with functional characteristics analogous to those associated with viral control in natural infection, and improved upon a vaccine based on adenoviral vectors alone. We assessed a heterologous prime-boost vaccination strategy based on a replicative defective simian adenoviral vector (ChAd3) and modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA) vector encoding the NS3, NS4, NS5A, and NS5B proteins of HCV genotype 1b. Analysis used single-cell mass cytometry and human leukocyte antigen class I peptide tetramer technology in healthy human volunteers. We show that HCV-specific T cells induced by ChAd3 are optimally boosted with MVA, and generate very high levels of both CD8(+) and CD4(+) HCV-specific T cells targeting multiple HCV antigens. Sustained memory and effector T cell populations are generated, and T cell memory evolved over time with improvement of quality (proliferation and polyfunctionality) after heterologous MVA boost. We have developed an HCV vaccine strategy, with durable, broad, sustained, and balanced T cell responses, characteristic of those associated with viral control, paving the way for the first efficacy studies of a prophylactic HCV vaccine. Hide abstract

Kelly C, Swadling L, Capone S, Brown A, Richardson R, Halliday J, von Delft A, Oo Y, Mutimer D, Kurioka A, Hartnell F, Collier J, Ammendola V, Del Sorbo M, Grazioli F, Esposito ML, Di Marco S, Siani L, Traboni C, Hill AV, Colloca S, Nicosia A, Cortese R, Folgori A, Klenerman P, Barnes E. 2016. Chronic hepatitis C viral infection subverts vaccine-induced T-cell immunity in humans. Hepatology, 63 (5), pp. 1455-70. Read abstract | Read more

UNLABELLED: Adenoviral vectors encoding hepatitis C virus (HCV) nonstructural (NS) proteins induce multispecific, high-magnitude, durable CD4(+) and CD8(+) T-cell responses in healthy volunteers. We assessed the capacity of these vaccines to induce functional HCV-specific immune responses and determine T-cell cross-reactivity to endogenous virus in patients with chronic HCV infection. HCV genotype 1-infected patients were vaccinated using heterologous adenoviral vectors (ChAd3-NSmut and Ad6-NSmut) encoding HCV NS proteins in a dose escalation, prime-boost regimen, with and without concomitant pegylated interferon-α/ribavirin therapy. Analysis of immune responses ex vivo used human leukocyte antigen class I pentamers, intracellular cytokine staining, and fine mapping in interferon-γ enzyme-linked immunospot assays. Cross-reactivity of T cells with population and endogenous viral variants was determined following viral sequence analysis. Compared to healthy volunteers, the magnitude of HCV-specific T-cell responses following vaccination was markedly reduced. CD8(+) HCV-specific T-cell responses were detected in 15/24 patients at the highest dose, whereas CD4(+) T-cell responses were rarely detectable. Analysis of the host circulating viral sequence showed that T-cell responses were rarely elicited when there was sequence homology between vaccine immunogen and endogenous virus. In contrast, T cells were induced in the context of genetic mismatch between vaccine immunogen and endogenous virus; however, these commonly failed to recognize circulating epitope variants and had a distinct partially functional phenotype. Vaccination was well tolerated but had no significant effect on HCV viral load. CONCLUSION: Vaccination with potent HCV adenoviral vectored vaccines fails to restore T-cell immunity except where there is genetic mismatch between vaccine immunogen and endogenous virus; this highlights the major challenge of overcoming T-cell exhaustion in the context of persistent antigen exposure with implications for cancer and other persistent infections. Hide abstract