Vaccine primes immune response to multiple coronaviruses in mouse study

Preventing the rise of the next coronavirus pandemic or epidemic could depend on creative developments in vaccine technology.

And now a trans-Atlantic research group has developed a vaccine it says trains the body’s immune response against at least 8 known coronaviruses and potentially many more.

Led by Cambridge University with contributions from researchers at Oxford and Caltech, the vaccine includes specific regions of the viral genomes of multiple coronaviruses, as well as many others currently circulating in bats.

Results from the study are published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

But while it primes the body against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID, the genetic material from the pathogen isn’t included in the vaccine.

Instead, among the segments of the 8 other coronaviruses included in the jab are regions that occur in SARS-CoV-2. It’s hoped that the product could serve as a broad-spectrum protection against deadly diseases by isolating and including common genetic segments. That includes against viruses that humans haven’t encountered yet.

“Our focus is to create a vaccine that will protect us against the next coronavirus pandemic, and have it ready before the pandemic has even started,” says Rory Hills, a graduate pharmacologist from Cambridge, who is the study’s lead author.

A scientist pipetting fluid into a vial
Rory Hills. Credit: Jacqueline Garget

A faster way to make a vaccine?

The Cambridge-led study builds on previous vaccine developments by its partner institutions; one such broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccine built by Oxford and Caltech is due for Phase 1 clinical trials in 2025.

But this new therapy aims to harness the similarities in antigens across several viruses. Antigens stimulate antibody responses in animals and humans.

For its latest work, the group produced a multi-viral ‘Quartet Nanocage’ from 4 viruses.

These nanocages are protein bundles bound with antigen chains, which provide several targets for the body’s immune system.

They then measured how mice responded, finding vaccine “boosts” that omitted segments of SARS-CoV-2 still generated an immune response to the virus. In their study, the authors write “overall, Quartet Nanocages achieved broad [coronavirus] response”. The outcome could be a vaccine product that is quick to make and can progress rapidly to clinical trials, says the study’s senior author Mark Howarth, a professor in Cambridge’s department of pharmacology.

“We don’t have to wait for new coronaviruses to emerge,” Howarth says.

“We know enough about coronaviruses, and different immune responses to them, that we can get going with building protective vaccines against unknown coronaviruses now.”

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