Needle-free vaccine developed in Cambridge is step towards universal protection against Covid-19 variants and future coronaviruses
An extraordinary new needle-free vaccine that represents a “first step” towards “universal” protection not just from emerging Covid-19 variants but future coronaviruses has begun a safety trial this week.
Developed by Prof Jonathan Heeney at the University of Cambridge and the spin-out company DIOSynVax, the next-generation vaccine is administered through a blast of air to the skin.
If it proves successful, it could pave the way for an alternative for those who fear needle-based jabs – and could be scaled up for manufacture as a powder to boost global vaccination efforts, particularly in low and middle-income countries.
But the innovation goes beyond the delivery method.
Existing Covid-19 vaccines target the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ spike proteins, which are continually mutating, raising the prospect of ‘vaccine escape’ – meaning the immune system may not recognise the invading virus.
But the DIOSynVax vaccine targets other types of antigens, or key regions of the virus, that are the same across coronaviruses that occur in nature, including in animals such as bats, which carry them and which are unlikely to change.
Prof Heeney, head of The Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at Cambridge, said: “The response of the scientific and medical communities to the development and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines has been incredible, but as new variants emerge and immunity begins to wane we need newer technologies. It’s vital that we continue to develop new-generation vaccine candidates ready to help keep us safe from the next virus threats.
“Our vaccine is innovative, both in terms of the way it primes the immune system to respond with a broader protective response to coronaviruses, and how it is delivered.
“Crucially, it is the first step towards a universal coronavirus vaccine we are developing, protecting us not just from Covid-19 variants but from future coronaviruses.”
The SARS-CoV-2 virus’ surface spike proteins bind to a protein receptor – ACE2 – on the surface of the cells in our airways, which enables the virus to release its genetic material into the host cell.
By hijacking the host cell’s machinery, the virus is able to replicate and spread.
Existing vaccines inform our immune systems how to recognise the spike proteins and block the virus, or destroy the cells carrying it, in order to protect us from Covid-19.
They typically use the sequence of RNA for the virus spike protein from the first isolated samples of the Covid-19 virus in January 2020.
But Prof Heeney’s vaccine – which the Cambridge Independent revealed he was already working on back in February 2020 – deploys predictive methods to encode antigens like the spike protein that mimics the wider family of coronavirus antigens, giving wider protection.
Using this approach, the body’s immune cells take up the vector, decode the DIOS-vaccine antigen and provide the information to the immune system to produce neutralising antibodies, which block the virus infection, and T-cells, which remove virus-infected cells.
The technology itself is well-established. The vaccine plasmid DNA used does not get taken up into human genetic material.
Prof Heeney, who is co-vice master of Darwin College, Cambridge, added: “DIOS-CoVax vaccines target elements of the virus structure that are common to all known ‘beta-coronaviruses’ – those coronaviruses that are the greatest disease threats to humans. These are structures that are vitally important to the virus life cycle, which means we can be confident that they are unlikely to change in the future.
“These next-generation DIOSvax vaccines should protect us against variants we’ve seen so far – alpha, beta, delta variants, for example – and hopefully future-proof us against emerging variants and potential coronavirus pandemics.”
It can be delivered pain-free without the use of a needle thanks to the PharmaJet Tropis intradermal Needle-free Injection System. This delivers the vaccine in less than a tenth of a second by spring-powered jet injection.
The first trials of DIOS-CoVax began on Tuesday (December 14) at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility (CRF).
The trial team is seeking healthy volunteers aged between 17 and 50 in the Southampton area who have had both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, but not their booster.
Prof Saul Faust, clinical chief investigator and director of the NIHR Southampton CRF, said: “This isn’t simply ‘yet another’ coronavirus vaccine as it has both Covid-19 variants and future coronaviruses in its sights. This technology could give wide-ranging protection to huge numbers of people worldwide.
“The people of Southampton and Hampshire have stepped up time and again to help find the vaccines that have unlocked the pandemic. We’re asking for their help again in developing this potentially game-changing vaccine.”
The phase I vaccine trial in Southampton will follow up volunteers for approximately 12 months to ensure it is safe. Payment of £785 will be provided for time and travel across 11 visits. Contact UHS.recruitmentCRF@nhs.net or call 0238 120 4989 for further details.
DIOSynVax was set up in 2017 with the support of Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s commercialisation arm. Funding for the development of the vaccine came from Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation.