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UCI vision researchers work on preemptive vaccine for all coronaviruses

Gavin Herbert Eye Institute researchers target known coronaviruses and ones yet to emerge from animal hosts

January 06, 2021
UCI scientist Lbachir BenMohamed, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute

“We need a preemptive coronavirus vaccine in place to thwart future outbreaks,” said UCI professor Lbachir BenMohamed, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute.

Irvine, Calif. — Several vaccines to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 have been developed with unprecedented speed. But what if there were a vaccine that would thwart a new coronavirus before it got a chance to begin spreading widely around the world?

A preemptive vaccine for new and known human and animal coronaviruses, including not only COVID-19 and the common cold but also bat and pangolin coronaviruses?

That’s exactly what UC Irvine professor Lbachir BenMohamed, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology at the university’s Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, and his colleagues are developing with a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the section of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that is led by Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Not if, but when

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve had many outbreaks of coronaviruses — in 2003, 2008, 2012, 2015, and 2019,” said BenMohamed, a vaccinologist and immunologist who trained at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. “It’s not a question of if we’ll have another outbreak, but when it will happen.”

The availability of vaccines recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use to protect against COVID-19 are a cause for celebration and give hope for end to the current pandemic. But BenMohamed is thinking long term.

“We need a preemptive coronavirus vaccine in place to thwart future outbreaks,” he said. “When one occurs anywhere in the world, we can ship the vaccine immediately to curtail the global spread of a new virus.”

A pan-coronavirus approach

Current vaccines from the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical companies target one spike protein in SARS-CoV-2 to stop the virus from spreading. But the body’s immune system doesn’t only react to the spike protein. Scientists in BenMohamed’s lab examined more than 20 SARS-CoV-2 proteins and found that the immune systems reacts to each one of them in different ways.

Using a vaccine approach similar to one used to combat herpes simplex, their pan-coronavirus vaccine focuses on epitopes — parts of viral proteins that evoke immune responses — from SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, four of the most typical viruses that produce the common cold, as well as several animal coronaviruses, including those in bats.

Because many of the most diabolical viruses in the past few decades have originated in bats and transferred indirectly to humans, BenMohamed is aiming for a vaccine to protect against bat coronaviruses that have yet to spill over to humans.

Promising early results

“As soon as the Chinese scientists released the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, we jumped on it,” BenMohamed said. “We started identifying the building blocks and did microsurgery on the virus to identify the regions that are being recognized by human T-cells and antibodies.”

Vaccines work in two ways: first by evoking an immune response by antibodies that neutralize the virus, and second by T-cells that clean infected cells if antibodies haven’t done the job. So far, he said results have been promising, showing that laboratory animals have produced T-cells and antibodies in reaction to the many prototype pan-coronavirus vaccine candidates.

Scientists in BenMohamed’s lab began their initial work when the SARS-CoV-2 virus' genomic sequence was released in January 2020, starting with seed money from Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, part of UCI Health. The team then won a $100,000 so-called Fast Grant from Emergent Ventures, a program of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia. Their current work is continuing with a $3.7 million NIH grant.

Clinical trials possible by June

BenMohamed expects to begin testing the first pan-coronavirus vaccine in early 2021. Phase 1 clinical trials to evaluate dosage and safety in humans could begin in June.

If the vaccine is successful in providing preemptive protection against all coronaviruses, this multi-epitope method may be a useful approach for a variety of illnesses.

“That could be the flu or any viral respiratory disease,” said BenMohamed.

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