City of Hope Researchers Developing a COVID-19 Vaccine
Sunday, April 05, 2020
As City of Hope develops a world-class cancer center and network of care in Orange County, it is making the breakthrough research of its outstanding scientists and clinicians more accessible to the local community. This work entails discoveries in the complex realm of cancer and beyond, including COVID-19.
City of Hope is addressing the novel coronavirus threat on a number of fronts, including the preclinical development of a coronavirus vaccine.
“Given the urgency of this pandemic, City of Hope is employing its vast expertise using the immune system to fight viral infections,” said Don Diamond, Ph.D., a viral immunologist with City of Hope’s Department of Hematology.
“In particular, City of Hope hematologists successfully treat a great number of infections that bone marrow/stem cell transplant recipients and other immune-compromised cancer patients can become exposed to during their treatment. So, City of Hope has both the expertise in researching and treating some of the worst viral infections out there.”
As background, City of Hope developed the Triplex vaccine against cytomegalovirus (CMV), a type of herpes virus that —similar to the coronavirus — can cause pneumonia and other serious complications in patients with weakened immune systems. In a phase 2 randomized clinical trial, Triplex prevented CMV from duplicating out of control in bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients, and they were 50 percent less likely to develop health complications related to the virus than patients who did not take Triplex.
Using that data and other immunological research, Diamond’s goal is to develop a COVID-19 vaccine using a unique platform. Diamond and his team plan to work with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop a path to potentially begin phase 1 clinical trials in six to eight months.
In the Q&A below, Diamond addresses how a vaccine is developed, how it works, and what makes the development of a coronavirus vaccine unique.
How Is A Vaccine Developed?
DD: You first need the sequence of the virus. Because COVID-19 is related to other viruses of the same type, we have a really large reservoir of information that can lead us to predict what antigens, or proteins from the virus, would be the most immunogenic. We are drawing upon previous information that allows us to understand what humans make immune responses to if they are infected with the actual pathogen or virus. So we can do this by sort of a reverse genetic engineering of the virus, isolating various pieces and studying in culture whether human serum or T cells can eventually recognize parts of the virus. Once you've identified what are the most antigenic, immunogenic parts of the virus, you insert them into a carrier. It can be a benign virus carrier, so a virus that is not harmful. Or you can use a nonliving carrier or an artificial carrier such as a nanocarrier. All of those are being researched right now at City of Hope and other institutions.
What Can You Tell Us About The City Of Hope Vaccine You’re Developing?
DD: We're working very hard to produce different candidates and will study them in various conditions to answer the unknown questions. We are not using the actual pathogen. We’re using a carrier and made synthetic versions of the antigens, and we're inserting that into a carrier, what’s known as a subunit strategy. City of Hope will initially develop the vaccine, but at some point we hope to have a commercial partner.
Once The Vaccine Is Developed, How Does It Work?
DD: The best vaccines work to mimic the pathogen without causing harm. The vaccine should generate antigens that hopefully prime the immune system to make antibodies and T cell responses. Now, what you also need out of a vaccine is something called durability. That’s the most crucial thing because what you're counting on in a protective vaccine is that, well, I can't be vaccinated every day of the week, right? So, the immunity is going to have to last for a while. That’s the key element of a successful vaccine. The pathogen, in most, but not all, circumstances gives you lifetime immunity. For instance, the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine gives you lifetime immunity to these diseases. As a child, you receive the MMR vaccine to do that. The same principle applies here.
Are There Particular Challenges That You Need To Take Into Account As You Develop A COVID-19 Vaccine?
DD: COVID-19 infects lung cells and does tremendous damage to them. Part of that damage is caused by the immune system attacking the virus in the lungs, thereby causing tremendous inflammation of the lungs. A protective vaccine would spur an immune response to be mounted before the virus replicates to huge numbers and causes physiologic damage.
Another challenge is that coronaviruses are also single-stranded RNA viruses, so the potential for mutation is quite high. COVID-19 is about 75 percent identical to SARS and about 50 percent identical to MERS. It is unlikely that vaccines made for those viruses would have much value for this one. We do have some information to begin with but are doing more research.
What Is The FDA Process To Get A Vaccine Approved For Use In Patients?
DD: What we plan to do is start a simultaneous animal safety study and petition the FDA to allow us to do a phase 1 safety study in humans. Following successful completion of a phase 1 study, an efficacy study such as a phase 2 trial can begin. People who are at risk of acquiring the infection would be given either the vaccine or the placebo in a double-blinded fashion. If the vaccine is successful, there will be greater protection in the group that got the vaccine. This is what we did with our CMV vaccine trial, and we are confident we can do this again.
City of Hope is an independent biomedical research and treatment center for cancer and other life-threatening diseases. City of Hope’s Newport Beach location is the first phase of plans to invest $1 billion to develop and operate a state-of-the-art cancer center and network of care in Orange County.