A Canadian company headed by a University of Alberta cancer researcher is developing a DNA vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and has currently infected nearly 400,000 people worldwide and crippled the global economy.
Entos Pharmaceuticals, a health-care biotechnology company that develops new therapeutic compounds using the company's proprietary drug-delivery platform, has begun manufacturing vaccine candidates against the novel coronavirus. The vaccine candidates will soon be tested in animal models as a first step before they are moved to human trials.
"Given the urgency of the situation, we can have a lead candidate vaccine within two months. Once we have that it's a race to get it into clinical trials," said John Lewis, CEO of Entos and a professor of oncology at the U of A.
Lewis said in comparison to a traditional vaccine, DNA-based vaccines hold several advantages. Nucleic acids are introduced directly into the patient's own cells, causing them to make pieces of the virus--tricking the immune system into mounting a response without the full virus actually being present. The approach is recognized as being easier to move into large-scale manufacturing, offers improved vaccine stability and works without needing an infectious agent.
In the current absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, several companies around the world are mounting efforts to begin similar work.
The first clinical trial using a DNA-based vaccine developed by Moderna Inc. began in Seattle, Wash., on March 13. Their approach allows for antibodies to be made in the human trial volunteers against a specific protein on the surface of the coronavirus that lets the virus enter human cells. The hope is that the antibodies will stop the interaction.
Though this approach is designed to be effective against COVID-19 specifically, Lewis said Entos is taking a different tack. The company plans to use plasmid DNA to amplify the production of key coronavirus surface and structural proteins with each injection, with an eye to the bigger picture.
"Many of the structural proteins in the virus are pretty well conserved across all the coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS," said Lewis. "We're hoping that if we express more of the structural proteins that are common to most coronaviruses, we can inhibit the current COVID-19, and also potentially protect against all coronaviruses both past and future."
To move the project forward quickly, Entos is seeking financial support from both provincial and federal levels of government. It is also hoping to partner with a larger pharmaceutical company with clinical trial experience.
Lewis says while Entos' current focus is firmly on COVID-19, over the long term he expects to learn lessons that will prove helpful in his primary research interest.
"The U of A has a long history of learning about and developing vaccines against the world's deadliest illnesses, and in my lab we're keenly interested in the development of genetic medicines for cancer," said Lewis, who is also the Alberta Cancer Foundation Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research at the U of A.
"While our near-term efforts will be to develop a vaccine against coronavirus, we'll use what we learn from this project to work on vaccines for cancer."
Lewis is confident that solutions will be found as academic and biotechnology communities around the world turn their collective attention to COVID-19. The next step is developing a system where those solutions can more quickly make their way to the patient.
"In times like this, where we're in crisis and a lot of lives are at stake worldwide, we need to look at innovative ways to more quickly determine the safety of new medicines and vaccines and get them into the clinic," he said.
"We have the opportunity to save a lot of lives, and I think it's really upon us and governments to find solutions for that."