Aus–Norway partnership to create rapid-response vaccines

Thursday, 17 January, 2019

Aus–Norway partnership to create rapid-response vaccines

The University of Queensland and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) have signed a $14.7 million partnership to develop a ‘molecular clamp’ vaccine platform, a technology that enables targeted and rapid vaccine production against multiple viral pathogens.

The Australian Government has committed additional funding of $4.5 million to support CEPI’s mission to develop vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.

UQ’s Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell and Dr Dan Watterson have developed a process that can synthesise these surface proteins while ‘clamping’ them into shape, making it easier for the immune system to recognise them as the correct antigen. This process requires the sequence of the viral protein, which can be determined from the viral genome. The synthetic antigen can then be purified and rapidly manufactured into a vaccine.

Professor Paul Young, co-lead on this research partnership and Head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said, “The World Health Organization’s Blueprint list of priority diseases recognises that new epidemics can arise from previously known, but also unknown, viruses — the latter referred to as ‘Disease X’.

“These new and emerging pathogens have the potential to reach global epidemic levels.

“Molecular clamp technology has been designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and veterinary viruses.”

Dr Keith Chappell, co-lead on the project, added, “We’ve had some extremely promising results so far from our trials targeting viruses such as influenza virus, Ebola virus, Nipah virus and MERS coronavirus.”

Reducing vaccine development time

Vaccines can take years to develop and must go through many phases of research and clinical testing. However, scientists at UQ estimate that their platform could produce hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses suitable for testing within 16 weeks from pathogen identification. This would make it possible to quickly respond to a new and unknown pathogen (also referred to as Disease X) and vaccinate populations at risk before the disease spreads. Additionally, UQ’s vaccine platform does not use live virus at any step during vaccine manufacture, which provides increased assurance of safety.

As part of their partnering agreement with CEPI, UQ will use its molecular-clamp vaccine platform to produce vaccines against Influenza virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Respiratory Syncytial virus, and will evaluate the safety and immune response of the Influenza and MERS-CoV candidates in a phase 1 clinical trial in humans.

This partnership forms part of CEPI’s development of a range of innovative ‘just-in-time’ technologies that could redefine the nature of vaccine development and vaccine use in emergency situations. In September 2017, CEPI requested proposals for vaccine platform technologies that enable rapid vaccine development, elicit rapid onset of immunity and whose production can be scaled up quickly to respond to outbreaks of Disease X. 35 applications were received from candidates in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and in academia. This partnership is CEPI’s second investment in such platform technologies.

Marise Payne, Federal Minister of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said, “Australia is committed to our region’s health security and recognises the importance of supporting world-leading medical research. We are pleased to support CEPI and its important work preparing the world to fight emerging infectious diseases.”

Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, said, “From Nipah and Hendra viruses to Chikungunya and Zika viruses, the Indo–Pacific region has seen multiple infectious diseases emerge over the past century.”

Jane Halton, Chair of the Board of CEPI, said, “As a result of CEPI funding, Australian researchers will have the ability to scale up and use their pioneering molecular-clamp technology to respond to the emergence of Disease X, which will have important social and economic benefits for Australia, Asia–Pacific and the rest of the world.”

Vaccine platform technology

The term “vaccine platform technology” broadly refers to a system that uses the same basic components as a backbone, but can be adapted for use against different pathogens by inserting new sequences.

Enveloped viruses, like influenza, have proteins on their surface that fuse to host cells during an infection. Although these surface proteins are antigenic — and therefore elicit an immune response — they are inherently unstable. One approach to vaccine design is to synthesise these proteins on their own such that they elicit an immune response, specifically antibodies that can kill the virus. Unfortunately, they tend to change shape when expressed on their own, a shape that does not reflect the form of the protein on the virus surface. Consequently, the immune response that is induced with these vaccines does not produce antibodies that efficiently lock on to the virus. UQ’s process can synthesise these surface proteins while ‘clamping’ them into shape, making it easier for the immune system to induce a response that recognises them on the virus surface.

This synthetic antigen can then be purified and rapidly manufactured into a vaccine, within 16 weeks from pathogen identification. This vaccine platform technology can be used to develop vaccines against a wide range of enveloped viruses (eg, Influenza, Ebola, MERS, Lassa virus, Measles, Herpes Simplex virus, Rabies).

The Molecular Clamp is patented technology developed by Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell and Dr Dan Watterson, and patented by UniQuest, UQ’s commercialisation company.

The collaboration involves UQ, the CSIRO, the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza (WHO-CC), the Australian National University (ANU), Hong Kong University (HKU) and Q-Pharm.

Top image caption: Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell and Dr Dan Watterson. Image courtesy of University of Queensland.

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