Research already underway in Colorado when the coronavirus began its brutal march across the globe may provide a head start in finding a vaccine for the virus.
Scientists at Colorado State University who were investigating the human rotavirus, feline coronavirus and possible vaccines tapping methods used to prevent the transmission of disease through blood products are now focused on the new coronavirus.
“It was very easy for us to pivot and look at that virus and understand the similarities with what we were already doing,” said Gregg Dean,head of CSU’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology.
Dean and his team had received a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine for human rotavirus, which, like the coronavirus, targets mucous membranes. Dean, also a veterinarian, has a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to find a vaccine for feline coronavirus.
Researchers led by Ray Goodrich, executive director of CSU’s Infectious Disease Research Center on the Fort Collins campus, shifted their focus to COVID-19 in February. The team had been looking at developing vaccines with a process that is used to prevent the transmission of disease through plasma and other blood components during transfusions. While working in private industry, Goodrich developed a technique that applies ultraviolet light and riboflavin, or vitamin B2, to kill bacteria or viruses in the blood.
“We had been looking at a number of different vaccines, producing vaccines using this technique,” Goodrich said. “When COVID-19 came along, it was just natural to pivot to try to apply what we were learning and what we were doing with these other vaccine candidates.”
There is an intense sense of urgency for Dean and Goodrich.
“Every day brings the news of the suffering and disruption that we’re all experiencing. I think we feel a tremendous responsibility, given our training, to respond in a productive way,” said Dean, who earned his doctorate and other degrees from CSU.
Goodrich said scientists at the university and across the country and globe are committed to finding a vaccine as quickly as possible.
“That’s why I think it’s important that we try to repurpose, try to redirect and utilize the knowledge that we’ve already built up as efficiently as possible,” Goodrich said. “We don’t necessarily have the time to start from scratch.”
The pace of devastation from the highly infectious disease is daunting. As of Friday, 100,000 people had died since the outbreak was first publicized in January. There are more than 1.6 million confirmed cases, with the United States accounting for nearly a third. Colorado had 250 confirmed deaths and more than 6,500 confirmed cases.
While scientists are keenly aware of the need to find a solution as soon as possible, Goodrich said, they are also dedicated to getting the science right, conducting the necessary testing and following the protocols. When people hear Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, say it could take at least a year to develop a vaccine, they might think that’s a long time, Goodrich said.
“I have to tell you that when he says 12 to 18 months, he’s probably already cutting two to three years off of the normal development cycle it would take for a vaccine if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic,” Goodrich said. “That’s actually incredibly fast, and the reason it’s not faster is because we want to make sure that what we do is safe.”
Dean said if all goes well, his team could start testing a potential vaccine in the next few months. The researchers’ approach is similar to the one in their work on feline coronavirus. They’re using a modified version of lactobacillus acidophilus, a beneficial bacterium in yogurt and health supplements.
“One reason that we’re very interested in lactobacillus acidophilus as a vaccine platform is because we understand how it engages the immune system. It does that right at the mucous membrane, and that is where we encounter the virus,” Dean said.
The goal is to stimulate an immune response that prevents the coronavirus from attaching to the membrane via the spiky proteins on its surface. The protein changes shape as it’s anchoring into a cell, and that process, which Dean calls its Achilles’ heel, is what he hopes to disrupt. Research into the feline coronavirus has helped because of similarities to the human form, he said.
The research led by Goodrich involves using ultraviolet light and riboflavin to inactivate the coronavirus. The genetic material is damaged and it can’t replicate or cause disease. But the chemistry, including the proteins on the surface of the virus, looks the same as the infectious form and can be used to trigger an immune response and generate antibodies.
“Once your body sees that again in the form of the native, viral type virus that is infectious, your body is already primed to be able to go after and destroy that viral particle and prevent you from becoming infected,” Goodrich said. “It’s a basic way that vaccine technology works in general.”
In addition to looking at vaccines, CSU researchers are working on diagnostic tests, ways to kill the virus in our surroundings and how to screen health care workers. Other CSU scientists working on the investigation into a vaccine include Richard Bowen, a biomedical sciences professor, Izabela Ragan and Lindsay Hartson, senior lab manager.
An experimental vaccine developed by the NIH and Moderna Inc., a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, was given to participants in a study in March.
At CSU, scientists are collaborating with researchers at other universities, tapping some of CSU’s unique resources to help. The school’s infectious disease research center has what’s called biosafety level 3 facilities, where scientists can work with certain agents and materials that other labs can’t handle. The university is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases network.
Another resource on campus is BioMARC, a nonprofit that works with universities and government and private labs to test and produce pharmaceuticals following the requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory bodies.
“We can actually manufacture a drug or a vaccine that can then go into humans,” Dean said. “That is a unique and important asset that we have here.”
At that point, a private company would be sought as a partner to get the drug to market.
Whether scientists at CSU or elsewhere develop a vaccine that works, Goodrich said, he hopes there are many options to choose from. “Whatever we could do to help each of those individual efforts, we’re here to help.”
Dean said the work underway at CSU and other universities shows in real time the importance of teaching the next generation of scientists.
“This is not hypothetical. This is what we’re training them to do right now in what’s going to be a life-changing event for them,” Dean added.
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