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How ‘Quartet Nanocage’ vaccine developed in Cambridge, Oxford and Caltech could provide broad protection against coronaviruses - including ones we don’t know exist yet





A new vaccine technology effective in mice against a broad range of coronaviruses - including ones we do not even know about - has been developed by researchers.

The scientists at the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Caltech say such ‘proactive vaccinology’ can help protect against future disease outbreaks.

Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology. Picture: Jacqueline Garget, University of Cambridge
Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology. Picture: Jacqueline Garget, University of Cambridge

The ‘Quartet Nanocage’ vaccine trains the body’s immune system to recognise specific regions of eight different coronaviruses.

These include SARS-CoV-2 - which caused Covid-19 - and several that are currently circulating in bats that have potential to jump to humans and cause a pandemic.

The specific regions the vaccine targets appear in many related coronaviruses, so training the immune system to attack these regions confers protection against others not represented in the vaccine, including ones we have yet to identify.

The new vaccine does not incorporate the SARS-CoV-1 coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, but still induces an immune response to that virus.

Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and first author of the study published in Nature Nanotechnology, said: “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.

Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology. Picture: Jacqueline Garget, University of Cambridge
Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology. Picture: Jacqueline Garget, University of Cambridge

“We’ve created a vaccine that provides protection against a broad range of different coronaviruses – including ones we don’t even know about yet.

Prof Mark Howarth, in Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and senior author of the report, said: “We don’t have to wait for new coronaviruses to emerge. We know enough about coronaviruses, and different immune responses to them, that we can get going with building protective vaccines against unknown coronaviruses now.

“Scientists did a great job in quickly producing an extremely effective Covid vaccine during the last pandemic, but the world still had a massive crisis with a huge number of deaths. We need to work out how we can do even better than that in the future, and a powerful component of that is starting to build the vaccines in advance.”

Typically, vaccines include a single antigen, which trains the immune system to target a single specific virus.

But this vaccine has a nanoparticle structure, based on a ball of proteins held together by incredibly strong interactions, with chains of different viral antigens attached using a novel ‘protein superglue’.

Including multiple antigens in these chains trains the immune system to target specific regions shared across a broad range of coronaviruses.

“What’s remarkable is that with just components, we have managed to raise an immune response to a broad range of coronaviruses, including to viruses that aren’t present in the vaccine itself,” said Rory.

The study showed how the vaccine raises a broad immune response, even in mice pre-immunised with SARS-CoV-2.

Other broadly protective vaccines are in development, but the researchers say this one is much simpler in design, which could accelerate its route into clinical trials.

The underlying technology could also be deployed for other vaccines.

The work improves on earlier research by the Oxford and Caltech groups to develop a novel all-in-one vaccine against coronavirus threats.

That vaccine is expected to enter Phase I clinical trials in early 2025, but the complexity of manufacturing it could limit large-scale production.

The new research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.




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