A new vaccine development approach, now being studied at the University of Minnesota Medical School, hopes to protect against current and future strains of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).

“This virus is affecting the whole world, and we’re not able to respond fast enough to thwart it with a vaccine,” said Geoffrey Hart, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, who leads the project. “Our hope is that the first wave of vaccines that other teams are working on will protect against SARS-CoV-2, and then our next-generation universal vaccine or antibodies would protect against future variants of SARS-CoV.”

To prove that a universal vaccine or antibodies are possible, Dr. Hart partnered with Marco Pravetoni, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, who brings his expertise in developing novel vaccines and antibody-based strategies for another public health crisis—treating and preventing opioid use disorders and overdose.

The duo says SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and antibodies currently in development focus on targeting the structural component of the virus that allows it to enter the body—the Spike subunit S1 protein. 

“These vaccines will most likely work, but the problem with those vaccines is that the specific subunit S1 is variable,” Dr. Hart said. “Other surface proteins, though they may not be directly involved in viral entry, are less variable and may be useful targets in creating vaccines and antibodies against future strains.”

The researchers plan to test in mice whether or not immunization against these novel targets is effective in protecting against SARS-CoV-2 and variants, and then determine key cellular and molecular processes involved in that protection.

“One scenario is that we do this vaccine, and the mice are protected and do better. Another situation is we could potentially make things worse and inform the development of safer vaccines,” Dr. Hart said. “The data will tell us one way or the other.”

That data, they hope, will come within a year. If positive, their research will provide a better understanding of the antibody response to the coronavirus and inform the creation of a long-lasting universal vaccine.

“If we can demonstrate a proof of principle for our vaccine development platform, when that next time comes around, instead of having a lag of months to start making a vaccine, we will be better prepared to start making vaccines right away,” Dr. Pravetoni said. “Coronavirus is not the only emergent pathogen out there, and so this technology would enable us to actually confront some of these other threats to public health.”

Their research is supported by a CO:VID (Collaborative Outcomes: Visionary Innovation & Discovery) grant and involves additional collaborators, including Maxim Cheeran, MVSc, PhD, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, Louis Mansky, PhD, Department of Diagnostic and Biological Sciences, Alberto Orioles, MD, Children’s Minnesota, and Maria Steiner, MD, MS, Department of Pediatrics.

“We’re very happy to contribute to the Medical School’s effort against COVID-19 and to the ‘Driven to Discover’ mission of the University of Minnesota,” Dr. Pravetoni said. “Geoff and I earned our doctorates at the U of M. We have known each other for 15 years, and finally now, we get to team up to tackle a critical public health threat together.”