University of Pittsburgh Announces Promising Vaccine Candidate

April 6, 2020

“We know exactly where to fight this new virus,” University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine said.

Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently announced their vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the novel coronavirus.

The study utilized animal testing in order to test the safety and efficacy of its Pittsburgh CoronaVirus Vaccine, known as PittCoVacc. The vaccine was delivered to mice through a fingertip-size patch, and generates potent antigen-specific antibody responses at levels believed to be effective in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 within 2 weeks.1

The results appeared in eBioMedicine and were published in The Lancet, and represent the first study to be published after critique from scientists at outside institutions for a COVID-19 vaccine, according to University of Pittsburgh.1

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014. These 2 viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus. We knew exactly where to fight this new virus,” co-senior author Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine said in a press release.2 “That’s why it’s important to fund vaccine research. You never know where the next pandemic will come from.”

Unlike the vaccine trial pursued by Moderna Inc, PittCoVacc functions the same way current flu vaccines work; the potential vaccine utilizes lab-made pieces of viral protein in order to build immunity against COVID-19.1

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine also implemented a drug delivery method to increase potency, called a microneedle array, through a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles that transfer the spike protein pieces into the skin in order to maximize the immune response.2

“We developed this to build on the original scratch method used to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the skin, but as a high-tech version that is more efficient and reproducible patient to patient,” Louis Falo, co-senior author, professor and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine, said.2 “And it’s actually pretty painless-it feels kind of like Velcro.”

Although the tested mice have only been studied short-term, the trials so far show responses parallel to that of the MERS-CoV vaccine, which supports neutralization of the virus for at least 1 year.1

Gamma radiation sterilization potency tests also reinforced the SARS-CoV-2 suitability for use in humans.1

The vaccine predictably has the minimum 1-year timeline of other vaccine candidates, and Pittsburgh researchers are currently applying for investigational new drug (IND) approval from the FDA so that a phase 1 human clinical trial can commence in the next few months. Pittsburgh is hopeful that the vaccine will be approved faster than normal.2

“Testing in patients would typically require at least a year and probably longer,” Falo said.2 “This particular situation is different from anything we’ve ever seen, so we don’t know how long the clinical development process will take. Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster.”

References:

1. Kim E, Erdos G, Huang S, et al. Microneedle array delivered recombinant coronavirus vaccines: immunogenicity and rapid translational development. The Lancet. 2020. https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/ebiom/PIIS2352-3964(20)30118-3.pdf

2. COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate Shows Promise in First Peer-Reviewed Research [news release]. University of Pittsburg website. https://www.pittwire.pitt.edu/news/covid-19-vaccine-candidate-shows-promise-first-peer-reviewed-research. Published April 2, 2020. Accessed April 3, 2020.