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Vaccines based on virus-like particles (VLPs) can induce potent B cell responses. Some non-chimeric VLP-based vaccines are highly successful licensed products (e.g., hepatitis B surface antigen VLPs as a hepatitis B virus vaccine). Chimeric VLPs are designed to take advantage of the VLP framework by decorating the VLP with a different antigen. Despite decades of effort, there have been few licensed chimeric VLP vaccines. Classic approaches to create chimeric VLPs are either genetic fusion or chemical conjugation, using cross-linkers from lysine on the VLP to cysteine on the antigen. We describe the principles that make these classic approaches challenging, in particular for complex, full-length antigens bearing multiple post-translational modifications. We then review recent advances in conjugation approaches for protein-based non-enveloped VLPs or nanoparticles, to overcome such challenges. This includes the use of strong non-covalent assembly methods (stick), unnatural amino acids for bio-orthogonal chemistry (click), and spontaneous isopeptide bond formation by SpyTag/SpyCatcher (glue). Existing applications of these methods are outlined and we critically consider the key practical issues, with particular insight on Tag/Catcher plug-and-display decoration. Finally, we highlight the potential for modular particle decoration to accelerate vaccine generation and prepare for pandemic threats in human and veterinary realms.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Immunol

Publication Date





SpyCatcher, bioconjugation, click chemistry, malaria, synthetic biology, vaccinology, virus-like particle