Influenza virus initiates infection by attaching to the cell surface, a process mediated by binding of the viral hemagglutinin protein (HA) to sialic acid. This sugar is found on glycoproteins, which are polypeptide chains decorated with chains of sugars. The way that sialic acid is linked to the next sugar molecule determines what kind of influenza viruses will bind. Human influenza viruses prefer to attach to sialic acids linked to the second sugar molecule via alpha-2,6 linkages, while avian influenza viruses prefer to bind to alpha-2,3 linked sialic acids. (In the image, influenza HA is shown in blue on the virion (left) and as a single polypeptide at right. Alpha-2,3 linked sialic acid is shown at top).
Adaptation of avian influenza viruses to efficiently infect humans requires that the viral HA quantitatively switches to human receptor binding – defined as high relative binding affinity to human versus avian receptors. Such a switch is caused by amino acid changes in the receptor binding site of the HA protein. The HA of the H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2 pandemic viruses are all derived from avian influenza viruses that underwent such a quantitative switch in binding from avian to human sialic acid receptors.
Avian H5N1 influenza viruses have not undergone a quantitative switch to human receptor binding, which is one of the reasons why these viruses do not undergo sustained human-to-human transmission. It has been possible to introduce specific amino acid changes in the H5 HA protein that enable these viruses to recognize human sialic acid receptors. Such changes were required to select variants of influenza H5N1 virus that transmit via aerosol among ferrets. However none of these viruses have quantitatively switched to human receptor specificity.
In the H5N1 paper, the authors compared the structure of an H5 HA bound to alpha-2,3 linked sialic acid with the structure of an H2 HA (its closest phylogenetic neighbor) bound to alpha-2,6 linked sialic acid, revealing substantial differences in the receptor binding site. To predict what residues could be changed in the H5 HA to overcome these differences, the authors developed a metric to identify amino acids within the receptor binding site that either contact the receptor or might influence the interaction. They examined these amino acids in different H5 HAs, and identified residues which might change the H5 HA to human receptor specificity. As a starting point they picked two H5 viruses that have already undergone amino acid changes believed to be important for human receptor binding. The changes were introduced into the HA of a currently circulating H5 HA by mutagenesis and then binding of the HAs to purified sialic acids and human tracheal and alveolar tissues was determined.
The HA ribosome binding site amino acid changes required for aerosol transmission of H5N1 viruses in ferrets did not quantitatively switch receptor binding of a currently circulating H5 HA from avian to human (the ferret studies were done using H5N1 viruses that circulated in 2004/05). The authors note that “These residues alone cannot be used as reference points to analyze the switch in receptor specificity of currently circulating and evolving H5N1 strains”.
However introducing other amino acid changes which the authors predicted would be important did switch the H5 HA completely to human receptor binding. Only one or two amino acids changes are required for this switch in recently circulating H5 HAs.
This work is important because it defines structural features in the receptor binding site of H5 HA that are critical for quantitative switching from avian to human receptor binding, a necessary step in the acquisition of human to human transmissibility. These specific residues can be monitored in circulating H5N1 strains as indicators of a quantitative switch to human receptor specificity.
Remember that switching of H5 HA to human receptor specificity is not sufficient to gain human to human transmissibility; what other changes are needed, in which genes and how many, is anyone’s guess.
These authors have also published (in the same issue of Cell) a similar analysis of the recent avian influenza H7N9 virus which has emerged in China to infect humans for the first time. They model the binding of sialic acid in the H7 HA receptor binding site, and predict that the HA would have lower binding to human receptors compared with human-adapted H3 HAs (its closest phylogenetic neighbor). This prediction was validated by studies of the binding of the H7N9 virus to sections of human trachea: they find that staining of these tissues is less intense and extensive than of viruses with human-adapted HAs. They predict and demonstrate that a single amino acid change in the H7 HA (G228S) increases binding to human sialic acid receptors. This virus stains tracheal sections better than the H7 parental virus.
These results mean that the H7N9 virus circulating in China might be one amino acid change away from acquiring higher binding to human alpha-2,6 sialic acid receptors. I wonder why a virus with this mutation has not yet been isolated. Perhaps the one amino acid change in the viral HA exerts a fitness cost that prevents it from infecting birds or humans. Of course, as discussed above, a switch in receptor specificity is likely not sufficient for human to human transmission; changes in other genes are certainly needed. In other words, the failure of influenza H7N9 virus to transmit among humans can be partly, but not completely, explained by its binding properties to human receptors.