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Promising trial results for universal coronavirus vaccine designed in Cambridge





“A real turning point” in our thinking about vaccine technology has been announced by Prof Jonathan Heeney.

Studies in animals of vaccine antigen technology developed by the University of Cambridge and its spin-out DIOSynVax have shown it is capable of providing protection against all known variants of the Covid-19 virus as well as other major coronaviruses, including those that caused the first SARS epidemic in 2002.

Professor Jonathan Heeney. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Jonathan Heeney. Picture: Keith Heppell

The research using mice, rabbits and guinea pigs was carried out prior to the human clinical trials of the ‘future-proof’ vaccine candidate now under way in Cambridge and Southampton.

A study shows that even though it was designed in early 2020, before the emergence of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2, the vaccine candidate provided strong protection against them all – and more recent variants. It suggests that vaccines based on DIOSynVax antigens may also protect against future SARS-CoV-2 variants.

The paper, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, reports that just one antigen – a substance that causes the immune system to produce antibodies against it – can be modified to provide a broadly protective immune response in animals. This suggests a single vaccine with combinations of such antigens could protect against an even wider range of current and future coronaviruses.

Professor Jonathan Heeney and the team at DIOSynVax. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge
Professor Jonathan Heeney and the team at DIOSynVax. Picture: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge

DIOSynVax (Digitally Immune Optimised Synthetic Vaccines) uses a combination of computational biology, protein structure, immune optimisation and synthetic biology to broaden the spectrum of protection. And the technology can be deployed using different vaccine delivery forms – including via a needle-free ‘blast of air’ – and created using various manufacturing platforms.

Concern over coronaviruses jumping from animals to humans has been a concern since the 2002 SARS outbreak.

Prof Heeney, from Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, who led the research, said: “In nature, there are lots of these viruses just waiting for an accident to happen. We wanted to come up with a vaccine that wouldn’t only protect against SARS-CoV-2, but all its relatives.

“Viruses are mutating and changing all the time. Current vaccines are based on a specific isolate or variant that occurred in the past, it’s possible that a new variant will have arisen by the time we get to the point that the vaccine is manufactured, tested and can be used by people.”

The new DIOSvax needle-free vaccine being trialled at the University of Southampton. Picture: University of Cambridge
The new DIOSvax needle-free vaccine being trialled at the University of Southampton. Picture: University of Cambridge

The Cambridge team is targeting the ‘Achilles heel’ of coronaviruses, rather than the spike proteins on the virus that change to evade our immune system. Its vaccine is focused on critical regions of the virus that it needs to complete its life cycle, identified through computer simulations and by selecting conserved structurally engineered antigens.

“This approach allows us to have a vaccine with a broad effect that viruses will have trouble getting around,” explained Prof Heeney, a fellow of Darwin College.

Booster immunisations in the first human trials of the vaccine candidate ended last month.

Prof Jonathan Heeney Picture: University of Cambridge
Prof Jonathan Heeney Picture: University of Cambridge

“Unlike current vaccines that use wild-type viruses or parts of viruses that have caused trouble in the past, this technology combines lessons learned from nature’s mistakes and aims to protect us from the future,” said Prof Heeney. “These optimised synthetic antigens generate broad immune responses, targeted to the key sites of the virus that can’t change easily. It opens the door for vaccines against viruses that we don’t yet know about. This is an exceptionally different vaccine technology – it’s a real turning point.”

DIOSynVax is also working on influenza and haemorrhagic fever vaccine candidates.



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