Nobody wants COVID-19. The epidemic has created misery, death and suffering, and is not yet over.
However, the lingering crisis has generated opportunities, by accelerating research that may benefit humanity away from the pandemic. Inhaled vaccines are one example. I’m part of a multidisciplinary team working to make this a practical reality, much sooner than it would have been without the pandemic.
We are now in the early stages of testing a next-generation vaccine for COVID-19 which our previous animal research indicates will last longer, be more effective and withstand well against future variants of the COVID-19 virus.
Before the emergence of COVID-19, my McMaster colleagues and I had been developing a new form of inhaled vaccine administration that could finally treat one of the most challenging respiratory infections: tuberculosis, which remains a disaster in low- and middle-income countries and in remote areas. In Canada, it disproportionately affects people who live in Inuit Nunangat and First Nations who live in the reserve.
After decades of work, progress has been steady, but slow. The lack of urgency to solve a problem that primarily affects people in poor conditions made it difficult to generate the resources and momentum needed to complete our research.
The urgent need for COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic, being truly global, has increased the demand for vaccines, such as the now-familiar ones from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. These vaccines made it through the immediate crisis, as the virus was spreading quickly, and they served us well, preventing serious illness and death in countries where vaccines were available.
These vaccines represent great strides, but they are not effective in all populations, nor are they as potent against new variants as they are against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Our research indicates that the next generation COVID-19 vaccine we are currently testing will be more effective for a longer period, and will protect against new variants.
Our team, which includes experts in pathology, molecular medicine, infectious diseases, immunology and aerosol particles, made progress toward a tuberculosis vaccine and quickly adapted the same approach to COVID-19. This delivery system can be transformative.
This promising science presents an opportunity to make a lasting and broader impact after COVID-19. While we still need to fully understand how these vaccines work, my colleagues and I are optimistic that this will finally give us a step in controlling tuberculosis and other lung infections.
Inhaled vaccine for COVID-19
We are running human trials of our new COVID-19 vaccine. The Phase 1 clinical study is evaluating safety, as well as testing evidence of immune responses in the blood and lung. Our new polyvalent vaccine, made for our clinical trial in the Robert E. Fitzhenry Vector lab, targets multiple viral proteins, both the barb protein on the surface and the proteins on the inside of the virus.
With the new variants, mutations occur in the spike protein on the outside of the virus. This makes current vaccines less effective because they only target the spike protein. However, the other proteins inside the virus remain the same. Targeting multiple proteins means that if clinical trials show a polyvalent COVID vaccine to be effective, it will still protect against infection with new variants as they emerge.
In addition to being a much friendlier way of administering the vaccine, the inhaled form requires much less vaccine — less than one percent of what is currently used in current vaccines.
The new process delivers the vaccine directly to where the body will use it: the mucosal surface of the airways. This means less waste, more benefits, lower costs, and fewer side effects.
The vaccine triggers an immune response in the cells lining the lungs to directly protect against COVID-19. This mucosal vaccination can also protect against other respiratory infections, from the common cold to influenza and bacterial pneumonia by invoking a group of ready-made immune cells to be the first line of defense against infection. This permanent and widespread form of general protection against infection is called innate immunity.
When virus particles in the vaccine are absorbed by immune cells in the lung, they recruit more cells from elsewhere in the body and together they produce a strong immune response. The process involves a very useful type of cell called memory T cells, which, once recruited and activated, remain in the lung and remain ready to fight infection.
decades of research
Our multidisciplinary team has reached the threshold of delivering this potentially transformative vaccine by focusing on decades of research. The antecedent of this work, the development of a viral vector, goes back more than 50 years to the work of molecular biologist Frank Graham, who created a microscopic Trojan horse using human adenovirus to safely transfer important viral genes into the body.
If we can demonstrate that the new inhaled vaccine is safe and effective, as we expect, the gains could be huge in terms of human health, medical costs and an overall improvement in quality of life, especially for vulnerable populations. We hope that the significant reduction in the costs of producing, storing and shipping the new vaccine product will allow greater access to developing and remote regions.
Nobody wants this pandemic, but when it’s finally over, a new generation of vaccines that target lung infections means we may all be able to breathe again, in every sense of the word.
Fiona Smile, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, McMaster University
This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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