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Clinical trials of Covid-19 vaccine created by University of Cambridge spin-out DIOSynVax ‘by autumn’



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Clinical trials of a potential Covid-19 vaccine developed in Cambridge could begin as early as the autumn, it can be revealed today.

Professor Jonathan Heeney at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Jonathan Heeney at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

University of Cambridge spin-out DIOSynVax has used 3D computer modelling to find the Achilles heel in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and aims to send in a parcel of genetic code to disrupt it. The Cambridge Independent exclusively revealed in February that the company, based at the Department of Veterinary Medicine in Madingley Road, was developing a novel approach to combating the coronavirus.

Now a £1.9million award has been made by Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency, to fund a collaboration between DIOSynVax – which is contributing £400,000 – the University of Cambridge and the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.

Professor Jonathan Heeney, head of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge, and founder of DIOSynVax, said: “Our approach involves 3D computer modelling of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s structure. It uses information on the virus itself as well as its relatives – SARS, MERS and other coronaviruses carried by animals that threaten to ‘spill-over’ to humans again to cause future human epidemics.

“We’re looking for chinks in its armour, crucial pieces of the virus that we can use to construct the vaccine to direct the immune response in the right direction. Ultimately we aim to make a vaccine that will not only protect from SARS-CoV-2, but also other related coronaviruses that may spill over from animals to humans.

“Our strategy includes 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. What we end up with is a mimic, a synthetic part of the virus minus those non-essential elements that could trigger a bad immune response.”

Professor Jonathan Heeney at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Jonathan Heeney at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Most vaccines use RNA or adenoviruses to deliver their antigens, but DIOSynVax’s is based around synthetic DNA.

Once an antigen – which provokes an immune response – is identified, a key piece of genetic code used by the virus is inserted into a DNA parcel known as a vector. The body’s immune cells take up this vector, decode the DIOS-vaccine antigen and use the information to program the rest of the immune system to produce antibodies against it.

The DNA vector has already been shown to be safe and effective at stimulating an immune response against other pathogens.

Dr Rebecca Kinsley, chief operating officer of DIOSynVax and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, added: “Most research groups have used established approaches to vaccine development because of the urgent need to tackle the pandemic. We all hope the current clinical trials have a positive outcome, but even successful vaccines are likely to have their limitations – they may be unsuitable for vulnerable people, and we do not know how long their effects will last for, for example.

“Our approach – using synthetic DNA to deliver custom designed, immune selected vaccine antigens – is revolutionary and is ideal for complex viruses such as coronavirus. If successful, it will result in a vaccine that should be safe for widespread use and that can be manufactured and distributed at low cost.”

The proposed vaccine can be freeze-dried as a powder, meaning it is stable at different temperatures and does not need to be cold-stored.

This aids the ease of transport and storage, which is important in low- and middle-income countries.

Professor Jonathan Heeney at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Jonathan Heeney at the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

The vaccine can also be delivered pain-free without a needle into the skin, using a jet of air.

A clinical trial will take place at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Southampton Clinical Research Facility at the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.

Professor Saul Faust, director of the facility, said: “It is critical that different vaccine technologies are tested as part of the UK and global response to the pandemic as at this stage no one can be sure which type of vaccine will produce the best and most long-lived immune responses.

“It is especially exciting that the clinical trial will test giving the vaccine through people’s skin using a device without any needles as together with stable DNA vaccine technology this could be a major breakthrough in being able to give a future vaccine to huge numbers of people across the world.”

Phil Packer, innovation lead for AMR and vaccines at Innovate UK, said: “Innovate UK is excited to fund the development of DIOS-CoVax and its assessment in phase I clinical trials. The rapid identification of the DIOS-CoVax2 vaccine was made possible because DIOSynVax were able to rapidly utilise its vaccine platform technology previously developed for an Ebola/ Marburg/Lassa fever vaccine.

“That was delivered by Innovate UK as part of DHSC’s Global Health Security programme, which saw £110m invested in a new UK Vaccine Network charged with developing new vaccines and technologies to tackle diseases with epidemic potential.”

The vaccine candidate was created at speed because the company was able to adapt the platform technology it previously developed for an Ebola/ Marburg/Lassa fever vaccine.

Prof Heeney has also been involved in working on an HIV vaccine with international researchers and has been working on a vaccine to tackle hemorrhagic fever – a group of highly contagious viruses – using the company’s technology.

In 2019, Prof Heeney was awarded funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the charity Flu Lab to help tackle the threat of a global influenza pandemic with a universal influenza vaccine.

DIOSynVax stands for Digitally Immune Optimised Synthetic Vaccines. The company was established in 2017 with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation arm.

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