I have always been excited to work in Biotech, I think it is the most exciting field of science around—a field that can help improve not only the human condition but more universally improve the condition of the entire world. And now the biotech stakes are higher than they have ever been, as hundreds of companies, universities, and partnerships are working around the clock as they try to find a vaccine against the virus SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Much of the world is closely following the efforts as we look for preventative measures, treatments and ultimately a vaccine to end COVID-19. New, innovative methods are being pursued in hopes of success. Some companies are harnessing the remarkable developments in the area of probiotics to a means to provide protective gene therapies against SARS-CoV-2 and even future pandemics. Some years ago it was discovered that the human body has more non-human organisms in it and on it than actual human cells! We are, in fact, a walking community of human cells, bacteria, archaea, viruses and eukaryotic microbes relying on each other for life. Our knowledge of these microbes has exploded with large-scale efforts such as the European Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (MetaHIT) and the NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project (HMP). Labs all over the world are focusing on understanding the role these microbes play and determining how they can be harnessed for improved health.
Of particular interest is the gut microbiome. Bacteria in the gut do much more than aid digestion. They have been found to influence overall metabolism, immune responses and even the central nervous system. An entire industry has arisen that works to supplement the natural microbiome with additional beneficial bacteria and sometimes yeast to improve overall health. These beneficial microbiota are called probiotics and can be found naturally in foods such as yogurt, tempeh and kimchi. You can also take probiotics in capsule form, or liquids made specifically to provide probiotics. One biotech company, Symvivo, uses a bacteria found in yogurt to deliver genetic material to tissues in the body. They have programs in clinical and pre-clinical space in oncology, ischemic heart disease, vaccines, and rare-diseases. They have turned their efforts to fight SARS-CoV-2 and are manufacturing, preclinically testing and clinically evaluating a bifidobacterial (a common gut bacteria) vaccine against the SPIKE protein to prevent COVID-19 infection.
Quadram Institute is another group working with a microbe-assisted delivery system for vaccines. They are adapting the natural ability of gut bacteria to make Outer Membrane Vesicles (OMVs) that can be used to package the vaccine and deliver it in non-invasive (needle-free!) methods such as oral or nasal routes. OMVs are exceedingly small droplets that are naturally pinched off from the outer membrane of the bacteria and contain substances from within the bacteria. These nanoparticle-sized OMVs have already been used to make vaccines which will perhaps help accelerate the development of a desperately needed protection from COVID-19.
SAb Therapeutics is using the other end of the size spectrum in their bid to have a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. They are using cows. Not just any cows though, but cows that have genes from the human immune system in them so that they are capable of making human antibodies. The cows are innoculated with SARS-CoV-2 and make a mixture of many different (polyclonal) antibodies that might be able to combat SARS-CoV-2. The antibodies can be isolated from the cows and tested with the most effective antibody hopefully used to help slow or prevent infections in humans. Why cows? Because the antibodies are found in the plasma of the animals, and cows have A LOT of plasma—between 30 and 45 liters each month from just one animal. That means a lot of antibody material for testing.
Whether the approach is nano-sized, or cow-sized or somewhere in between, the world is hoping that an effective and safe vaccine can be produced quickly. According to the Welcome Trust it can take 10 years and $500 million dollars to produce a vaccine. With all of the diverse efforts underway, I really hope that the COVID-19 vaccine will come faster.
Illustation Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention