Adjuvants are materials added to vaccines to enhance the immunological response to an antigen. QS-21 is a natural product adjuvant under investigation in numerous vaccine clinical trials, but its use is constrained by scarcity, toxicity, instability and an enigmatic molecular mechanism of action. Herein we describe the development of a minimal QS-21 analogue that decouples adjuvant activity from toxicity and provides a powerful platform for mechanistic investigations. We found that the entire branched trisaccharide domain of QS-21 is dispensable for adjuvant activity and that the C4-aldehyde substituent, previously proposed to bind covalently to an unknown cellular target, is also not required. Biodistribution studies revealed that active adjuvants were retained preferentially at the injection site and the nearest draining lymph nodes compared with the attenuated variants. Overall, these studies have yielded critical insights into saponin structure–function relationships, provided practical synthetic access to non-toxic adjuvants, and established a platform for detailed mechanistic studies.
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