Canadian biotech has developed vaccine strips that could be used as a booster Covid-19 vaccine but also be used as an alternative vaccine for several other diseases. MIT scientists found a way to leverage synthetic biology to detect signs of serious diseases. Meanwhile, the researchers at the University of Leeds and the University of Tel Aviv have important breakthroughs of their own. The team of researchers at the University of Leeds came up with a method that can lead to a new generation of synthetic biomaterial and the Tel Aviv team had a huge nanobiotechnology development. What has been new in the world of biotech and pharma giants? Moderna is launching trials for its flu mRNA vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline has a new mega-deal targeting neurodegenerative diseases, and Philips works on its stroke care system.
Canadian biotech has partnered with the McMaster University team to research a new potential method of the Covid-19 vaccine that could serve as an alternative to the jab. They have developed thin stripes infused with a vaccine that can dissolve in a person’s mouth in roughly 10 seconds.
Mark Upsdell, the CEO of Rapid Dose Therapeutics (RDT), the biotechnology company that came up with the strips explained that the vaccine crosses through the blood-brain barrier and travels into the bloodstream right as it dissolves.“What we’ve developed is an oral thin film strip that is precise, convenient, and a discreet way to deliver drugs,” he said.
RDT has just announced the results of its preclinical studies that showed the high effectiveness of the stripes. The first results have also indicated the proteins infused in the oral stips remain stable at a high temperature of up to 40C which would make their storage much easier.
“With the ability to infuse the product and stabilize it at 40 C, which is above room temperature, now we can distribute the strip with a vaccine across the globe,” Upsdell said.
While the distribution of several vaccines is well underway, many developing countries do not have the same ability regarding freezers and temperature-controlled products.
“When you start looking at where the warm countries are and the logistics or the infrastructure to support that logistics system, the ability to put it into a strip and deliver it is, we believe, is game-changing,” he said.
Jason Lewis, senior vice president of RDT, added: “Cold-chain storage and transportation requirements, the need for highly trained personnel for administration, the cost of procurement and delivery of vials and syringes, not to mention the very real human fear of needles, can result in prolonged duration of a pandemic.”
“A shelf-stable, individually-administered, orally-delivered vaccine would alleviate many of these challenges,” he continued.
Now, following the encouraging results from the first study, RTD will start the second stage of animal studies.
“We’ve been able to stabilize the vaccine, we’ve been able to check the box that it dissolves in your mouth and enters the bloodstream. The current processes is we’re now measuring what they call the immune response and that is how much was delivered into the system,” Upsdell said. He added that the strip can come in handy in the future in terms of the potential booster dose.
“It could be for a booster shot. It could be for the flu vaccine, it could be dengue [fever], West Nile virus, so it’s just not limited to the COVID vaccine,” Upsdell said. “The delivery system will facilitate a lot of these other vaccines and I’ll say serums.”
Biologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created synthetic biology “circuits” that could program our cells to detect signs of disease and give patients and doctors time to react before it actually occurs.
The circuits rely on protein-protein interactions that are naturally occurring processes where one protein in our body will switch another one on or off by adding or deleting the phosphates. The MIT researchers have developed a method to quickly activate these circuits, starting with 14 proteins found not only in humans but also in plants. The proteins have been engineered in a way that allows them to regulate each other and create signals in response to an event.
In their first study, the event the protein was exposed to was sorbitol (a sugar common in fruits) exposure. In the study, the MIT biologists illustrated how they design synthetic circuits that allowed cells to store a memory of sorbitol exposure, display it as a fluorescent protein and pass the memory of the event to descendent cells. The circuits could be programmed to detect abnormal hormone levels, falling blood sugar, drug overdoses, and many other worrying body signals.
Ron Weiss, Ph.D., a professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, said in a statement. “You could have a situation where the cell reports that information to an electronic device that would alert the patient or the doctor, and the electronic device could also have reservoirs of chemicals that could counteract a shock to the system,” he said.
“That switch to extremely fast speeds is going to be really important moving forward in synthetic biology and expanding the type of applications that are possible,” Weiss added.
The researchers from the University of Leeds have found a way to develop a new generation of synthetic biomaterials made from proteins. The biomaterials could be applied in a variety of ways, from joint repair and wound healing to food production.
Currently, one of the biggest challenges in synthetic biomaterials is controlling the way protein building blocks merge into protein networks that are used as a basis of biomaterials. The scientists from Leeds University are investigating how nano changes to the structure of the protein building blocks can influence the structure and mechanics of the biomaterial on a large scale. In a paper published by the scientific journal ACS Nano, the team from the University of Leads claims they managed to alter the structure of a complex protein network by removing a specific chemical bond, referred to as the protein staples, in the protein building blocks. Once the protein staple was removed, the individual protein molecules could unfold more easily.
“Proteins display amazing functional properties. We want to understand how we can exploit this diverse biological functionality in materials which use proteins as building blocks,” Professor Lorna Dougan, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Leeds, who supervised the research, said.”But to do that we need to understand how changes at a nanoscale, at the level of individual molecules, alters the structure and behavior of the protein at a macro level.”
Dr. Matt Hughes, also from the School of Physics and Astronomy and lead author of the paper, said: “Controlling the protein building block’s ability to unfold by removing the “protein staples” resulted in significantly different network architectures with markedly different mechanical behavior and this demonstrates that unfolding of the protein building block plays a defining role in the architecture of protein networks and the subsequent mechanics.”
“The ability to change the nanoscale properties of protein building blocks, from a rigid, folded state to a flexible, unfolded state, provides a powerful route to creating functional biomaterials with controllable architecture and mechanics,” Dougan added.
The international research team at Tel Aviv University came up with a big nanotechnology development, making it possible to generate electric currents and voltage in a human body by activating various organs (mechanical force). Their development is connected to a very strong biological material that is non-toxic and completely safe for the tissues in the body. The new material is very similar to collagen and the new nanotechnology method could be applied in several ways such as harvesting clean energy to operate the devices that are implanted in the human body.
The study was led by Prof. Ehud Gazit of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research at the Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, and the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, along with his lab team, Dr. Santu Bera and Dr. Wei Ji. The researchers from Tel Aviv collaborated with a number of research institutions in Ireland, China, and Australia.
Professor Gazit explained: “Collagen is the most prevalent protein in the human body, constituting about 30% of all of the proteins in our body. It is a biological material with a helical structure and a variety of important physical properties, such as mechanical strength and flexibility, which are useful in many applications. However, because the collagen molecule itself is large and complex, researchers have long been looking for a minimalistic, short, and simple molecule that is based on collagen and exhibits similar properties. About a year and a half ago, in the journal Nature Materials, our group published a study in which we used nanotechnological means to engineer a new biological material that meets these requirements. It is a tripeptide — a very short molecule called Hyp-Phe-Phe consisting of only three amino acids — capable of a simple process of self-assembly of forming a collagen-like helical structure that is flexible and boasts a strength similar to that of the metal titanium. In the present study, we sought to examine whether the new material we developed bears another feature that characterizes collagen — piezoelectricity. Piezoelectricity is the ability of a material to generate electric currents and voltage as a result of the application of mechanical force, or vice versa, to create a mechanical force as the result of exposure to an electric field.”
“Most of the piezoelectric materials that we know of today are toxic lead-based materials, or polymers, meaning they are not environmentally and human body-friendly. Our new material, however, is completely biological, and therefore suitable for uses within the body. For example, a device made from this material may replace a battery that supplies energy to implants like pacemakers, though it should be replaced from time to time. Body movements — like heartbeats, jaw movements, bowel movements, or any other movement that occurs in the body on a regular basis — will charge the device with electricity, which will continuously activate the implant,” he adds.
On Friday, GlaxoSmithKline announced it would pay a minimum of $700 million for rights to two experimental drugs treating neurodegenerative diseases. It comes as a surprise considering the pharma giant has not focused on investing in brain drugs for over 10 years. Now, the new deal with a California-based Alector that focuses on using the immune system to fight neurodegeneration could be a huge turning point for the UK GlaxoSmithKline.
Currently, GSK has access to two Alector drugs that boost a protein that regulates several crucial functions in the central nervous system such as cell growth, repair, and inflammation. One is tested against a rare type of dementia and the other against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
In addition to the initial payment for the rights to the drugs, GSK can pay Alector an extra $1.5 billion given that several regulatory, development and commercial milestones will be met. According to the deal, Alector will be in charge of the middle stages of human testing and after it is completed, the two companies will split the development responsibilities and costs. The partnership also includes the companies that will sell the drugs together and split the profits and losses.
After a huge success with its mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, Moderna has started to work on an improved flu vaccine. Now, biotech is starting its phase 1 and 2 clinical trials for the seasonal jab. 180 healthy adults will be enrolled in the trial testing the reaction of the patients and the efficacy of the vaccine.
The vaccine that Moderna is currently focused on is the mRNA-1010 that protects against common flu strains. While flu shots are common, their efficacy varies from 40% to 60% and Moderna hopes to improve that rate. As the strains used in traditional flu shots are decided up to nine months in advance, researchers are left with a lot of guessing in terms of what strains may be dominant during the upcoming flu season.
Moderna has already used mRNA vaccines in several trials, targeting specific strains of flu. In 2019, a phase 1 trial showed biotech’s mRNA vaccine against H10N8 and H7N9 influenza was highly efficient. However, many other biotechs are now encouraged to invest in mRNA vaccines after the success of the Covid-19 vaccines. Several giants such as Sanofi, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline are launching clinical trials for mRNA vaccines.
In addition to the flu, Moderna is working on several other vaccines including HIV and respiratory syncytial virus vaccine. “Respiratory combination vaccines are an important pillar of our overall mRNA vaccine strategy,” said Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel in a statement. “Our vision is to develop an mRNA combination vaccine so that people can get one shot each fall for high efficacy protection against the most problematic respiratory viruses.”
When the doctors suspect the patient has a stroke, several procedures must be completed before a definitive diagnosis and treatment can begin. However, as time is crucial and every minute saved increases the chances of less neurological damage, being able to diagnose the patient and start the treatment quicker is crucial. Now, Philips comes with the “Direct to Angio Suite” workflow that could send the patients directly to the neuro angiography department and skip several steps in the traditional process, making the diagnosis much quicker.
The method will be tested in a multicenter study that will research the improvements of patients that are immediately transported to the facility’s specialist and receive an advanced brain scan that Philips developed. The company’s CT imaging technology uses algorithms and filters to receive high-quality brain image that is integrated into its platform. The first patient has already been enrolled in the study and Philips wants to recruit at least 550 more patients globally at one of 15 stroke centers. The new study is expected to end by 2023.
“After suffering a stroke, fast time to treatment is paramount to giving patients the best possible outcomes. What we will learn about improving time to treatment in the WE-TRUST trial has the potential to significantly improve how acute stroke patients are diagnosed and treated,” said Raul Nogueira, the trial’s principal investigator. “With the help of an advanced brain scan technology in the angio suite, for example, we intend to eliminate the need for conventional CT or MRI scans for stroke triage in select patients to save valuable time,” he added.
Philips also wants to upgrade its stroke diagnosis and treatment program with its latest AI collaboration with NicoLab. NicoLab developed a cloud-based software StrokeViewer that uses AI to analyze CT scans and alert physicians once a sign of a stroke is detected.