After coronaviruses caused SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and now COVID-19, scientists have started to bet that other members of this viral family will cause other outbreaks in the future.
But what if a single vaccine worked against all the corona viruses in the past, present and future?
Researchers from San Diego, California, to Boston are racing to turn this possibility into reality, and they have just received a huge boost for their efforts. On Thursday, the La Jolla Institute of Immunology announced that Erica Ullmann-Saphire, head of the organization, had won a three-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a so-called “universal coronavirus vaccine.”
“It’s a class of viruses that we know can cause global pandemics,” Safire said. “It’s something we have to be prepared for. We’re trying to stave off the next pandemic,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
It’s part of a larger effort led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital Boston, and researchers at MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University have joined forces.
Scientists in Boston are studying people who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, and are looking for immune responses with the ability to fight a wide range of coronaviruses.
For this strategy to work, researchers must identify parts of the virus’s surface that do not change from one coronavirus to another, and train the immune system to go after these common areas.
Saver’s team will design the vaccine, as her group has figured out how to make a version of the coronavirus’ spiky protein — the protein that sticks to human cells and allows the virus to glide inside — that closely mimics the shape of the actual virus protein.
This is key because, for proteins, shape is everything. The millions of proteins in each cell involve complex three-dimensional structures, somewhat like the work of origami. These shapes control what each protein does, and even small changes affect how or whether it works.
“If the protein is better organized and folded more stable, it will stay and stimulate the immune system for a longer time,” Saphire added.
The full scholarship lasts for five years, with additional funding arriving in the fourth year. By then, Savir hopes to get a clearer idea of how a pan-coronavirus vaccine should be administered. This means knowing how many doses people need, how far apart they are, and whether the vaccine should use proteins, RNA (such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) or some other method of stimulating immunity.
Many other researchers are pursuing the same goal, with scientists at Scripps Research also working on a universal coronavirus vaccine in partnership with the Gates Foundation.
Immunologist Dennis Burton is one of them, and he’s using the same strategy his team has used to study HIV for decades, closely examining antibody responses for clues about how to reverse engineer a vaccine that could lead to broad, long-term protection.