Smallpox holds a unique position in the history of medicine. It was the first disease for which a vaccine was developed and remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination. Although there have been claims of smallpox in Egypt, India, and China dating back millennia [1-4], the timescale of emergence of the causative agent, variola virus (VARV), and how it evolved in the context of increasingly widespread immunization, have proven controversial [4-9]. In particular, some molecular-clock-based studies have suggested that key events in VARV evolution only occurred during the last two centuries [4-6] and hence in apparent conflict with anecdotal historical reports, although it is difficult to distinguish smallpox from other pustular rashes by description alone. To address these issues, we captured, sequenced, and reconstructed a draft genome of an ancient strain of VARV, sampled from a Lithuanian child mummy dating between 1643 and 1665 and close to the time of several documented European epidemics [1, 2, 10]. When compared to vaccinia virus, this archival strain contained the same pattern of gene degradation as 20(th) century VARVs, indicating that such loss of gene function had occurred before ca. 1650. Strikingly, the mummy sequence fell basal to all currently sequenced strains of VARV on phylogenetic trees. Molecular-clock analyses revealed a strong clock-like structure and that the timescale of smallpox evolution is more recent than often supposed, with the diversification of major viral lineages only occurring within the 18(th) and 19(th) centuries, concomitant with the development of modern vaccination.
Edward Jenner and his contemporaries believed that his variolae vaccinae originated in horses and molecular analyses show that modern vaccinia virus (VACV) strains share common ancestry with horsepox virus (HPXV). Given concerns relating to the toxicity of modern VACV vaccines, we asked whether an HPXV-based vaccine might provide a superior alternative. Since HPXV may be extinct and the only specimen of HPXV that has been identified is unavailable for investigation, we explored whether HPXV could be obtained by large-scale gene synthesis. Ten large (10-30 kb) fragments of DNA were synthesized based on the HPXV sequence along with two 157 nt VACV terminal sequences, and were recombined into a live synthetic chimeric HPXV (scHPXV) in cells infected with Shope fibroma virus (SFV). Sequencing of the 212 kbp scHPXV confirmed it encoded a faithful copy of the input DNA. We believe this is the first complete synthesis of a poxvirus using synthetic biology approaches. This scHPXV produced smaller plaques, produced less extracellular virus and exhibited less virulence in mice than VACV, but still provided vaccine protection against a lethal VACV challenge. Collectively, these findings support further development of scHPXV as a novel replication-proficient smallpox vaccine.
Poxviruses are widespread pathogens, which display extremely different host ranges. Whereas some poxviruses, including variola virus, display narrow host ranges, others such as cowpox viruses naturally infect a wide range of mammals. The molecular bases for differences in host range are poorly understood but apparently depend on the successful manipulation of the host antiviral response. Some poxvirus genes have been shown to confer host tropism in experimental settings and are thus called host range factors. Identified host range genes include vaccinia virus K1L, K3L, E3L, B5R, C7L and SPI-1, cowpox virus CP77/CHOhr, ectromelia virus p28 and 022, and myxoma virus T2, T4, T5, 11L, 13L, 062R and 063R. These genes encode for ankyrin repeat-containing proteins, tumor necrosis factor receptor II homologs, apoptosis inhibitor T4-related proteins, Bcl-2-related proteins, pyrin domain-containing proteins, cellular serine protease inhibitors (serpins), short complement-like repeats containing proteins, KilA-N/RING domain-containing proteins, as well as inhibitors of the double-stranded RNA-activated protein kinase PKR. We conducted a systematic survey for the presence of known host range genes and closely related family members in poxvirus genomes, classified them into subgroups based on their phylogenetic relationship and correlated their presence with the poxvirus phylogeny. Common themes in the evolution of poxvirus host range genes are lineage-specific duplications and multiple independent inactivation events. Our analyses yield new insights into the evolution of poxvirus host range genes. Implications of our findings for poxvirus host range and virulence are discussed.
In this study, five phage display antibodies (pdAbs) against ectromelia virus (ECTV) were selected from vaccinia virus (VACV)-immune phage-display library of human single chain variable fragments (scFv). ELISA demonstrated that selected pdAbs could recognize ECTV, VACV, and cowpox virus (CPXV). Atomic force microscopy visualized binding of the pdAbs to VACV. Three of the selected pdAbs neutralized variola virus (VARV) in the plaque reduction neutralization test. Western blot analysis of ECTV, VARV, VACV, and CPXV proteins indicated that neutralizing pdAbs bound orthopoxvirus 35 kDa proteins, which are encoded by the open reading frames orthologous to the ORF H3L in VACV. The fully human antibody fh1A was constructed on the base of the VH and VL domains of pdAb, which demonstrated a dose-dependent inhibition of plaque formation after infection with VARV, VACV, and CPXV. To determine the p35 region responsible for binding to neutralizing pdAbs, a panel of truncated p35 proteins was designed and expressed in Escherichia coli cells, and a minimal p35 fragment recognized by selected neutralizing pdAbs was identified. In addition, peptide phage-display combinatorial libraries were applied to localize the epitope. The obtained data indicated that the epitope responsible for recognition by the neutralizing pdAbs is discontinuous and amino acid residues located within two p35 regions, 15-19 aa and 232-237 aa, are involved in binding with neutralizing anti-p35 antibodies.
After Edward Jenner established human vaccination over 200 years ago, attenuated poxviruses became key players to contain the deadliest virus of its own family: Variola virus (VARV), the causative agent of smallpox. Cowpox virus (CPXV) and horsepox virus (HSPV) were extensively used to this end, passaged in cattle and humans until the appearance of vaccinia virus (VACV), which was used in the final campaigns aimed to eradicate the disease, an endeavor that was accomplished by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980. Ever since, naturally evolved strains used for vaccination were introduced into research laboratories where VACV and other poxviruses with improved safety profiles were generated. Recombinant DNA technology along with the DNA genome features of this virus family allowed the generation of vaccines against heterologous diseases, and the specific insertion and deletion of poxvirus genes generated an even broader spectrum of modified viruses with new properties that increase their immunogenicity and safety profile as vaccine vectors. In this review, we highlight the evolution of poxvirus vaccines, from first generation to the current status, pointing out how different vaccines have emerged and approaches that are being followed up in the development of more rational vaccines against a wide range of diseases.
On June 25, 2015, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended routine vaccination with live smallpox (vaccinia) vaccine (ACAM2000) for laboratory personnel who directly handle 1) cultures or 2) animals contaminated or infected with replication-competent vaccinia virus, recombinant vaccinia viruses derived from replication-competent vaccinia strains (i.e., those that are capable of causing clinical infection and producing infectious virus in humans), or other orthopoxviruses that infect humans (e.g., monkeypox, cowpox, and variola) (recommendation category: A, evidence type 2 [Box]). Health care personnel (e.g., physicians and nurses) who currently treat or anticipate treating patients with vaccinia virus infections and whose contact with replication-competent vaccinia viruses is limited to contaminated materials (e.g., dressings) and persons administering ACAM2000 smallpox vaccine who adhere to appropriate infection prevention measures can be offered vaccination with ACAM2000 (recommendation category: B, evidence type 2 [Box]). These revised recommendations update the previous ACIP recommendations for nonemergency use of vaccinia virus smallpox vaccine for laboratory and health care personnel at risk for occupational exposure to orthopoxviruses (1). Since 2001, when the previous ACIP recommendations were developed, ACAM2000 has replaced Dryvax as the only smallpox vaccine licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and available for use in the United States (2). These recommendations contain information on ACAM2000 and its use in laboratory and health care personnel at risk for occupational exposure to orthopoxviruses.
For almost 150 years after Edward Jenner had published the “Inquiry” in 1798, it was generally assumed that the cowpox virus was the vaccine against smallpox. It was not until 1939 when it was shown that vaccinia, the smallpox vaccine virus, was serologically related but different from the cowpox virus. In the absence of a known natural host, vaccinia has been considered to be a laboratory virus that may have originated from mutational or recombinational events involving cowpox virus, variola viruses or some unknown ancestral Orthopoxvirus. A favorite candidate for a vaccinia ancestor has been the horsepox virus. Edward Jenner himself suspected that cowpox derived from horsepox and he also believed that “matter” obtained from either disease could be used as preventative of smallpox. During the 19th century, inoculation with cowpox (vaccination) was used in Europe alongside with inoculation with horsepox (equination) to prevent smallpox. Vaccine-manufacturing practices during the 19th century may have resulted in the use of virus mixtures, leading to different genetic modifications that resulted in present-day vaccinia strains. Horsepox, a disease previously reported only in Europe, has been disappearing on that continent since the beginning of the 20th century and now seems to have become extinct, although the virus perhaps remains circulating in an unknown reservoir. Genomic sequencing of a horsepox virus isolated in Mongolia in 1976 indicated that, while closely related to vaccinia, this horsepox virus contained additional, potentially ancestral sequences absent in vaccinia. Recent genetic analyses of extant vaccinia viruses have revealed that some strains contain ancestral horsepox virus genes or are phylogenetically related to horsepox virus. We have recently reported that a commercially produced smallpox vaccine, manufactured in the United States in 1902, is genetically highly similar to horsepox virus, providing a missing link in this 200-year-old mystery.
An Adverse Event Following Immunization (AEFI) is an adverse reaction to a vaccination that goes above and beyond the usual side effects associated with vaccinations. One serious AEFI related to the smallpox vaccine is myopericarditis. Metabolomics involves the study of the low molecular weight metabolite profile of cells, tissues, and biological fluids, and provides a functional readout of the phenotype. Metabolomics may help identify a particular metabolic signature in serum of subjects who are predisposed to developing AEFIs. The goal of this study was to identify metabolic markers that may predict the development of adverse events following smallpox vaccination. Serum samples were collected from military personnel prior to and following receipt of smallpox vaccine. The study population included five subjects who were clinically diagnosed with myopericarditis, 30 subjects with asymptomatic elevation of troponins, and 31 subjects with systemic symptoms following immunization, and 34 subjects with no AEFI, serving as controls. Two-hundred pre- and post-smallpox vaccination sera were analyzed by untargeted metabolomics using (1)H nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Baseline (pre-) and post-vaccination samples from individuals who experienced clinically verified myocarditis or asymptomatic elevation of troponins were more metabolically distinguishable pre- and post-vaccination compared to individuals who only experienced systemic symptoms, or controls. Metabolomics profiles pre- and post-receipt of vaccine differed substantially when an AEFI resulted. This study is the first to describe pre- and post-vaccination metabolic profiles of subjects who developed an adverse event following immunization. The study demonstrates the promise of metabolites for determining mechanisms associated with subjects who develop AEFI and the potential to develop predictive biomarkers.
Although it has been >30 years since the eradication of smallpox, the unearthing of well-preserved tissue material in which the virus may reside has called into question the viability of variola virus decades or centuries after its original occurrence. Experimental data to address the long-term stability and viability of the virus are limited. There are several instances of well-preserved corpses and tissues that have been examined for poxvirus viability and viral DNA. These historical specimens cause concern for potential exposures, and each situation should be approached cautiously and independently with the available information. Nevertheless, these specimens provide information on the history of a major disease and vaccination against it.
Cytosolic recognition of DNA has emerged as a critical cellular mechanism of host immune activation upon pathogen invasion. The central cytosolic DNA sensor cGAS activates STING, which is phosphorylated, dimerises and translocates from the ER to a perinuclear region to mediate IRF-3 activation. Poxviruses are dsDNA viruses replicating in the cytosol and hence likely to trigger cytosolic DNA sensing. Here we investigated the activation of innate immune signalling by 4 different strains of the prototypic poxvirus vaccinia virus (VACV) in a cell line proficient in DNA sensing. Infection with the attenuated VACV strain MVA activated IRF-3 via cGAS and STING, and accordingly STING dimerised and was phosphorylated during MVA infection. Conversely, VACV strains Copenhagen and Western Reserve inhibited STING dimerisation and phosphorylation during infection and in response to transfected DNA and cGAMP, thus efficiently suppressing DNA sensing and IRF-3 activation. A VACV deletion mutant lacking protein C16, thought to be the only viral DNA sensing inhibitor acting upstream of STING, retained the ability to block STING activation. Similar inhibition of DNA-induced STING activation was also observed for cowpox and ectromelia viruses. Our data demonstrate that virulent poxviruses possess mechanisms for targeting DNA sensing at the level of the cGAS-STING axis and that these mechanisms do not operate in replication-defective strains such as MVA. These findings shed light on the role of cellular DNA sensing in poxvirus-host interactions and will open new avenues to determine its impact on VACV immunogenicity and virulence.IMPORTANCEPoxviruses are dsDNA viruses infecting a wide range of vertebrates and include the causative agent of smallpox (variola virus) and its vaccine vaccinia virus (VACV). Despite smallpox eradication VACV remains of interest as a therapeutic. Attenuated strains are popular vaccine candidates, whereas replication-competent strains are emerging as efficient oncolytics in virotherapy. The successful therapeutic use of VACV depends on a detailed understanding of its ability to modulate host innate immune responses. DNA sensing is a critical cellular mechanism for pathogen detection and activation of innate immunity that is centrally coordinated by the ER-resident protein STING. Here STING is shown to mediate immune activation in response to MVA, but not to virulent VACV strains or other virulent poxviruses, which prevent STING activation and DNA sensing during infection and after DNA transfection. These results provide new insights into poxvirus immune evasion and have implications in the rational design of VACV-based therapeutics.