ZMapp, a mixture of three antibodies against Ebola virus, became a household name after it was used to treat two Americans who were infected while working in Liberia. The structure of these antibodies bound to the Ebola virus glycoprotein suggest how they inhibit infection and ways to improve ZMapp.
The three monoclonal antibodies that comprise ZMapp (called c13C6, c2G4, and c4G7) were produced by immunizing mice with a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus in which the glycoprotein was replaced with that from Ebola virus. Antibodies that bound the viral glycoprotein and protected mice from infection were identified, and three were made to resemble human antibodies and produced in tobacco plants. Ecco Zmapp!
Embedded in the membrane of the filamentous Ebola virus particle are many copies of the glycoprotein, seen as club-shaped spikes in the image to the right (image credit: ViralZone). The viral glycoprotein is essential for entry of the virus into cells. The antibodies in ZMapp are directed against the viral glycoprotein.
To determine how the antibodies bind the virus particle, they were individually mixed with purified Ebola virus glycoprotein, and the structures were determined by electron microscopy and image reconstruction. The results, shown in the illustration, indicate precisely where each antibody binds to the Ebola virus glycoprotein. The individual antibodies colored red (c2G4), yellow (c4G7), and purple (c13C6) are bound to a single Ebola virus glycoprotein in white, with the viral membrane below (Image credit).
The structures reveal that c13C6 (purple) binds at the tip of the viral glycoprotein, perpendicular to the plane of the viral membrane. The other two antibodies (red, yellow) bind at the base of the viral glycoprotein. Their binding sites overlap but are not identical (the Ebola virus glycoprotein is a trimer, and in the image, the yellow and red antibodies are shown binding to different subunits for clarity). Two other antibodies that block Ebola virus infection also bind at the base of the glycoprotein.
Antibody c13C6, which binds to the tip of the viral glycoprotein, does not neutralize viral infectivity. Nevertheless, it can protect animals from Ebola virus infection. This observation suggests that the c13C6 antibody may work in concert with complement, a collection of serum proteins, to block virus infection. It is not known why c13C6 antibody is non-neutralizing, but one possibility is that it binds to a part of the viral glycoprotein that is removed by an endosomal protease, cathepsin, before receptor binding in late endosomes.
Antibodies c2G4 and c4G7, which bind to the membrane-proximal part of the viral glycoprotein, neutralize viral infectivity. How they do so is not known, but one possibility is that they prevent structural changes of the viral protein that are essential for the fusion with the endosomal membrane, a process that delivers the viral nucleic acid into the cell cytoplasm.
These studies reveal two general areas of the Ebola virus glycoprotein that are important targets for antibodies that protect animals from Ebola virus infection. Those directed at the base of the glycoprotein neutralize infectivity while those that bind the tip do not. This information can now be used to isolate additional antibodies that bind either site. These can be used in animal protection studies to design mixtures that are even more potent than ZMapp.