At the Maryland School of Medicine, volunteers are being injected with a potential coronavirus vaccine that doesn’t operate like a traditional one. In fact, the mRNA vaccine being tried has been developed with the help of Bill Gates’ sizeable investment in a German company, which specializes in the development of these vaccines.
A vaccine to fight against the deadly new coronavirus is being injected into volunteers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Unlike most vaccines, this one does not inject virus proteins into the body.
Researchers are studying the safety, efficacy, and dosing of the experimental mRNA- based vaccine as part of a multicenter study in the U.S. and Germany.
The first recipient was a doctoral candidate named David Rach. He didn’t flinch when he got the shot and he didn’t hesitate to sign up for the trial.
“We have the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the world at the moment our hospitals are being overwhelmed our most vulnerable are dying and the quickest easiest way out of this mess is a vaccine,” Rach explained.
The research, funded by Pfizer, involves four different versions of a vaccine given in varying doses to about 90 people.
The initial stage will include up to 360 participants, but in Baltimore, up to 90 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 85 will participate.
Principle investigator, Dr. Kirsten Lyke, who previously led efforts to create an Ebola vaccine, says there is no reason to believe it won’t work.
“We do this day in and day out, developing vaccines, and to be able to bring our expertise to a crisis like this pandemic is really gratifying,” says Dr. Lyke, “I’m sure that there will be a vaccine. We’ve been through this before.”
Dr. Lyke says the trial will continue through the summer as doses are given and the recipients’ blood is checked for COVID antibodies.
The research is racing to beat a possible second wave of the disease.
“We’re shooting for autumn, date to be determined, but autumn to down select our combinations of vaccines to that one vaccine that we want to take into mass production,” Dr. Lyke says.
Participants will receive two injections one month apart. The first group will consist of healthy adults aged 18 to 55 years old. The next group will be aged 65- 85 years old.
Researchers will study the effects of different dosages and types of vaccines to learn which one produces the best immune response.
For David Rach its now a waiting game.
“I hope I can incubate enough antibodies so they can see if its effective or not,” he says.
This report leaves out A LOT of information about RNA vaccines.
Have you heard about RNA vaccines? This technology recently made the news when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $53 million in the German company, CureVac, which specializes in the development of these vaccines .
How do RNA-based vaccines work?
Vaccination is the process in which substances called antigens are introduced artificially into the body to stimulate the immune system, the set of cells that protects the body against infections [2,3]. Those antigens are generally infectious agents – pathogens – that have been inactivated by heat or chemical treatment so that they will not cause disease, or they can also be purified proteins from the pathogens. Exposing the body to antigens leads to the production of molecules specifically directed against them, called antibodies. Antibodies create a memory of a specific pathogen (“acquired immunity”) and enable a more rapid and efficient response to a real infection with an active pathogen.
Vaccination has been central in diminishing or eradicating multiple infectious diseases, such as smallpox or polio. However, producing vaccines is a long and complex process, and it has been difficult to implement vaccines against certain pathogens. Thus, designing new vaccines remains a major challenge for public health. To answer this challenge, there have been many improvements to designing vaccines, such as using computational prediction. Development of nucleotide vaccines based on DNA, and the related molecule RNA, is another promising area of progress in the field .
In each cell of a living organism, DNA is the molecule that contains the genetic information of the organism . It is composed of a series of four building blocks, whose sequence gives the instructions to fabricate proteins.
This process requires a transient intermediary called messenger RNA that carries the genetic information to the cell machinery responsible for protein synthesis. As an analogy, one can see the DNA as a cook book in a library: the recipe is stored here but cannot be used. The commis, or chef’s assistant, first makes a copy (the RNA) of a specific recipe and brings it to the kitchen. The information is now ready-to-use by the chef, who can add the ingredients in the order specified by the recipe and create a cake (the protein).
For a classical vaccine, the antigen is introduced in the body to produce an immune response. However, in the case of DNA- or RNA-based vaccines, no antigen is introduced, only the RNA or DNA containing the genetic information to produce the antigen.
That is, for this specific class of vaccines, introduction of DNA and RNA provides the instructions to the body to produce the antigen itself (Figure 1). They can be injected in various ways (under the skin, in the vein or in lymph nodes) and then they can enter our body’s cells. Those cells will use the RNA sequence of the antigen to synthesize the protein [2,6]. After this step, the mechanism is similar to classical vaccines: the antigen is presented at the surface of a subset of cells and triggers the activation of specific cells of the immune system (Figure 2).
The ways in which DNA and RNA vaccines work are similar in many ways, and some of the common steps are described above. However, RNA vaccines have some distinct advantages. One is that RNA-based vaccines appear to perform better than DNA-based vaccines. Another is that they are also safer, as injection of RNA presents no risk of disrupting the cell’s natural DNA sequence. To continue our kitchen analogy, disruption from DNA is like inserting a foreign ingredient in an existing recipe, which can change the resulting dish . Injecting RNA, on the other hand, is like temporarily adding a new recipe in the cook book while keeping old ones untouched, and therefore will not result in surprising changes to existing recipes.
How are they produced?
With the considerable progress in DNA sequencing, it has become relatively easy to determine the genome sequence of pathogens. RNA can thus be produced in vitro, i.e. outside the cells, using a DNA template containing the sequence of a specific antigen. Creating a RNA vaccine also requires some engineering of the RNA to achieve a strong expression of the antigen [4,6].
This is a much simpler process than the culture of virus in eggs. Egg cultures, the more common way of producing vaccines, can provoke allergic reactions; the in vitro production of RNA avoids this possibility. Producing RNA vaccines is also less expensive than producing the full antigen protein [4,6,7].
The article goes on to laud the RNA vaccine potential, but many people warn that messing with the way DNA communicates to cells seems like a recipe for disaster.