Mechanisms underlying vaccination protocols that may optimally elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies against highly mutable pathogens

Raman S. Ganti, Arup K. Chakraborty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Effective prophylactic vaccines usually induce the immune system to generate potent antibodies that can bind to an antigen and thus prevent it from infecting host cells. B cells produce antibodies by a Darwinian evolutionary process called affinity maturation (AM). During AM, the B cell population evolves in response to the antigen to produce antibodies that bind specifically and strongly to the antigen. Highly mutable pathogens pose a major challenge to the development of effective vaccines because antibodies that are effective against one strain of the virus may not protect against a mutant strain. Antibodies that can protect against diverse strains of a mutable pathogen have high "breadth"and are called broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). In spite of extensive studies, an effective vaccination strategy that can generate bnAbs in humans does not exist for any highly mutable pathogen. Here we study a minimal model to explore the mechanisms underlying how the selection forces imposed by antigens can be optimally chosen to guide AM to maximize the evolution of bnAbs. For logistical reasons, only a finite number of antigens can be administered in a finite number of vaccinations; that is, guiding the nonequilibrium dynamics of AM to produce bnAbs must be accomplished nonadiabatically. The time-varying Kullback-Leibler divergence (KLD) between the existing B cell population distribution and the fitness landscape imposed by antigens is a quantitative metric of the thermodynamic force acting on B cells. If this force is too small, adaptation is minimal. If the force is too large, contrary to expectations, adaptation is not faster; rather, the B cell population is extinguished for reasons that we describe. We define the conditions necessary for the force to be set optimally such that the flux of B cells from low to high breadth states is maximized. Even in this case we show why the dynamics of AM prevent perfect adaptation. If two shots of vaccination are allowed, the optimal protocol is characterized by a relatively low optimal KLD during the first shot that appropriately increases the diversity of the B cell population so that the surviving B cells have a high chance of evolving into bnAbs upon subsequently increasing the KLD during the second shot. Phylogenetic tree analysis further reveals the evolutionary pathways that lead to bnAbs. The connections between the mechanisms revealed by our analyses and recent simulation studies of bnAb evolution, the problem of generalist versus specialist evolution, and learning theory are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number052408
JournalPhysical Review E
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The work was supported by the NIH-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Grant No. P01 AI091580-06.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 American Physical Society.


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