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Consortium to Speed Vaccine Production

Syringe

(frolicsomepl, Pixabay)

16 Jan. 2019. An alliance of research organizations is designing ways to cut the time needed to develop, test, and manufacture new vaccines to as little as 6 months. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, an international group based in Oslo, Norway, is funding a vaccine production technology in development at University of Queensland in Australia against existing and yet-unknown viruses.

CEPI is backing this new vaccine production process to help authorities become better prepared to respond to known health threats, as well as epidemics from new pathogens not yet encountered. World Health Organization in its 2018 R&D Blueprint, a planning document to identify emerging worldwide health priorities, lists 7 diseases for which effective treatments and vaccines are not yet available. On the list as well is “Disease X,” representing the chance of a epidemic from a completely new microbe not seen before. As a result, says the document, “the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown ‘Disease X’ as far as possible.”

The Queensland project is headed by molecular biologist Paul Young and virologist Keith Chappell. Young, Chappell, and research fellow Daniel Watterson developed a technique for stabilizing synthetic viral proteins used in vaccines they call a molecular clamp. This molecular clamp works with viruses that fuse with host cells before entering and infecting the host cells. Proteins that promote this fusion process are often candidates for vaccine design, since they attract a strong immune response that neutralizes viruses, and also provide more binding sites for antibodies before fusing with host cells. Thus vaccines with these fusion proteins offer an ideal strategy for preventing fusion of virus and host cells, and subsequent infections.

However, fusion proteins are quite unstable. Conventional vaccines, say the researchers, can trigger the proteins prematurely into their more difficult to target post-fusion form. The molecular clamp is a multiple-peptide molecule designed to stabilize the fusion proteins, in effect freezing the pre-fusion form. As a result, adding the molecular clamp technology provides vaccines with better targets and invokes a stronger immune response. Queensland’s technology transfer office patented the technology.

In addition, the molecular clamp can be applied to a wide range viruses. “The technology has been designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and animal viruses,” says Young in a university statement. “We’ve had some extremely promising results so far from trials targeting viruses such as influenza, Ebola, Nipah, and MERS coronavirus.” Both Nipah and MERS are caused by viruses transmitted from animals to humans.

Young, Chappelle, and Watterson are developing a process based on more stable fusion proteins from the molecular clamp to accelerate testing and production of candidate vaccines. “We aim to be able to manufacture more than 200,000 doses of a new vaccine, demonstrate safety and the likelihood of efficacy, and be ready for field deployment in as little as six months,” says Chappelle.

CEPI is providing $AUS 14.7 million ($US 10.6 million) for the initiative. The Queensland team is collaborating with CSIRO, Australia’s science funding agency, World Health Organization, Australian National University, and Hong Kong University on the project, as well as clinical trials company Q-Pharm Pty in Brisbane, Australia. Chappelle tells more about the project in the following video.

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