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17 March, 2020 - 20:34 By Tony Quested

Cambridge University spin-out working on COVID-19 vaccine seeks Big Pharma alliance

A Cambridge University spin-out working towards a vaccine against COVID-19 is seeking critical funding and a Big Pharma partner to help accelerate the breakthrough.

DIOSynVax was set up in 2017 with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation arm. It believes that with the right funding and partner it could have a vaccine ready by June.

Mastermind Professor Jonathan Heeney has won significant funding and investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Innovate UK and Cambridge Enterprise in recent years to develop new vaccines for diseases ranging from influenza to Ebola and other haemorrhagic fevers. It is this technology that he and his team are now applying to the coronavirus.

DIOSynVax’s approach is much faster than current vaccine development technologies, says Professor Heeney, which means that even allowing for essential pre-clinical mouse studies, his vaccine candidate could be ready for human clinical trials as early as June. 

Head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge, Professor Heeney says that coronaviruses present a particular challenge to vaccine developers.

“We need a Big Pharma partner to help us scale up our activities,” he says. “Our vaccine designs are made so that they can be easily integrated into any proprietary vaccine platform that a pharmaceutical company may have ready.”

DIOSynVax uses computer modelling of the virus’s structure, created using information on the COVID-19 virus itself as well as its relatives – SARS, MERS and other coronaviruses – and identifying chinks in its armour; crucial pieces of the exterior spikes that will form part of the vaccine to disable the virus but without making the infection worse.

“A vaccine strategy needs to be laser specific, targeting those domains of the virus’s structure that are absolutely critical for docking with a cell, while avoiding the parts that could make things worse,” he says. “Our technology does just that.”

The approach of the Cambridge UK business is to look at the genetics of these viruses to identify the key piece of genetic code that the virus uses to produce the essential part of its coat – the spikes, that are important for docking with a cell – and to target these elements with the vaccine.

Professor Heeney says: “What we end up with is a mimic, a mirror image of part of the virus, but minus its bad parts, the non-essential parts that could trigger those bad immune responses. What remains is just the magic bullet, essentially, to trigger the right type of immune response.”

Then, using a combination of artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, the team create a vaccine that includes this piece of genetic code, which can be injected into an individual. 

The body’s immune cells will then find it, decode it and use the information to program the rest of the immune system to produce antibodies against it.

The next step is to then test the vaccine in pre-clinical trials – in other words, give the vaccine to mice to check that it is safe to use. Mice are an important part of vaccine research: their physiology and immune systems are similar enough to ours to enable researchers to minimise the risk to humans taking part in clinical trials.

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