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02 Jul 2021

Second generation COVID-19 vaccines receive MRFF grants

Two second generation COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed at the Doherty Institute have received a significant funding boost from the Commonwealth Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

Laboratory head, Professor Stephen Kent and his team, Dr Adam Wheatley, Dr Jennifer Juno and Dr Hyon Xhi Tan have been studying how to focus the best immunity, measured by the highest neutralising antibody responses against COVID-19.

The team have developed a vaccine platform that uses a protein scaffold to present the receptor binding domain (RBD) of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

“Our recent published work in Nature Communications and Nature Medicine showed that neutralising antibodies are a key driver of protective immunity and provided clues on how best to induce neutralising antibodies,” Professor Kent explained.

“Our vaccine platform produces high levels of neutralising antibodies and maintains the support from helper immune cells for generating high quality and long-lived neutralising antibodies.” The Kent group has recently shown that helper T immune cells are critical in mounting an immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses (Clinical and Translational Immunology and Nature Medicine).

The vaccine concept has showed promise in animal models and is well suited to induce immunity to new variants of SARS-CoV-2 that can escape neutralising antibodies to current COVID-19 vaccines.

“The $3 million MRFF grant will refine our vaccine approach and move the vaccine into human clinical trials,” Professor Kent said.

Professor Joseph Torresi and his team, Dr Melissa Barrow, Dr Julio Carrera Montoya and Ms Linda Earnest also received $3 million dollars from the MRFF to further develop an adaptable SARS-CoV-2 (not infectious) virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine together with collaborative partners CSIRO, Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (VAANZ), Seqirus and Avalia.

The vaccine has been developed on a long background of research on VLP vaccines for hepatitis C and dengue viruses.

These VLPs can be modified to include proteins that are unique to a specific virus, such as SARS-CoV-2. This can direct the body’s immune system to make a response to a synthesised virus like particle instead of needing a real virus.

Professor Torresi also devised a way to incorporate key structural proteins, in addition to Spike protein, into the VLP, markedly enhancing their potency and the development of important protective T cell immune responses.

“Our vaccine candidate will allow for a timely modification of VLPs, according to the circulating viral variants, as they emerge which will enable a rapid response to future coronavirus pandemics,” he said.

“This funding is a huge step forward in progressing our vaccine through pre-clinical testing, manufacturing and toxicology studies and will pave the way to a Phase 1 clinical trial.”

A project led by Associate Professor Noleen Bennett, Senior Infection Control Consultant at VICNISS, 'Development and Implementation of the National Infection Surveillance Program for Aged Care (NISPAC)' received $998,000. More details to come on the Doherty Institute website soon.