Vaccinating: making a nasal vaccine for coronavirus

Vaccines need to take into account that the virus can mutate...
24 March 2020

Interview with 

Steve Powell, eTheRNA

NOSE

A man's nose.

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How is the world going to stop this pandemic? And not just stop it, but stop it coming back? It looks like a vaccine is the best option, and there are already thankfully teams all over the world racing to develop vaccine candidates. But one possibility is that the virus could change or mutate in some way, the company eTheRNA are targeting parts of the virus that they think won’t ever change. Their approach, developed originally as a vaccine for cancer, involves administering short pieces of genetic material that code for certain parts of the virus structure. Immune cells can pick up these instructions, decode them and then mount a protective response - as CEO Steve Powell explained to Chris Smith...

Steven - The traditional vaccine approach is based on generating antibody responses to the virus. The problem is that when this virus comes back, just as we see with waves of influenza, then the chances are it will come back in a different format. Rather than focus the vaccine on a specific protein that is sitting on the surface of the virus, what we want to find are parts of that virus coat that however much the virus mutates will always be present. And then rather than just create a short lived antibody response, which is a typical response of the body to any invader, what we want to do is to create a longer lasting response which would provide long term protection for healthcare workers when an epidemic breaks out.

Chris - How easy is it to find parts of the virus that don't change in that way?

Steven - Well, the advantage is that people have been able to understand the structure of the virus and been able to analyse that structure. And we have been working with a number of different partners to really take all of that data, push it through very large data processing programmes, and then identify very specific parts of protein that we can then build into our vaccine, which we will then deliver in a slightly unusual way. We're looking to deliver them up the nose using a nasal spray and therefore what we're looking to create is a very strong vaccine response in the upper respiratory tract and in the nasal passages.

Chris - Having identified these parts of the surface of the virus that you think are not ever going to change, you can then, what, make those bits of the virus artificially?

Steven - That's right, so we can take those pieces, make them artificially, we can then use our existing technology to amplify the body's response to those pieces.

Chris - So you get more bang for your immunological buck if you like.

Steven - Yeah, that's exactly right. Now we've been doing this work in both cancer disease areas and also infectious disease areas so we know we can amplify the signal. The key to this is finding the right piece.

Chris - And this all goes up the nose.

Steven - In this case, in the setting of corona, we need to be able to deliver this to a very large, healthy patient population.

Chris - And is it protein, the bit of the surface coat of the virus that you're doing this with, or is it the genetic code that codes for that protein in the virus that you're putting into the patients?

Steven - Yeah, so we use something called messenger RNA. We take the code for the protein and we build that into the messenger RNA. And when that's delivered into the body, it's read, just like a computer programme. And from that reading comes the protein that would exist in the virus coat and that then creates the immune response.

Chris - You've been doing this, as you say, for targeting cancers. How do you know though, that this will work against something very different? Because an infectious disease is quite a different entity to a cancer.

Steven - It is and we have indeed already done it for a number of other viral infections including HIV and other respiratory tract virus infections. So we know it will work.

Chris - There are a number of players entering this market because obviously the potential here is huge. They're all saying though that it's one thing to make a potential vaccine, it's another to then get it very rapidly through all of the regulatory hoops to make sure we've got something that's safe and effective and therefore good value for money.

Steven - I think the difference between what we are advocating and what is being quite widely talked about, is that the other approaches are relatively short term measures. What we're trying to do is to develop something rapidly, way more rapidly than would normally be done, but equally it's not something that we're trying to push into a clinical trial in the next few weeks. We're actually looking to do this over a longer period of time so that we can interact effectively with a number of different regulatory agencies, not just in one geography but quite widely.

Chris - How long is longer term do you think? When do you think, with a fair wind behind you, you could have something that would actually be useful in the present outbreak situation?

Steven - From our approach, this is months. This is putting something into clinical trials very early in 2021, so next year. But this approach is relevant not just for coronavirus, but for other serious viral infections, including something that we're all well acquainted with, such as influenza, and that we can use this approach with a number of different virus infections as and when they inevitably return in different mutated forms.

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