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dated: 2022-11-20 05:58:06 .
With new COVID variants and sub-variants developing at an accelerating rate, each threatening the effectiveness of leading vaccines, the search is on for a new type of vaccine – one that will work equally well against current and future forms of the novel coronavirus.
Now researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland believe they have found a new approach to vaccine design that could lead to long-lasting vaccination. As a bonus, it could work for other coronaviruses, not just the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID.
The NIH team reported their findings in a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Cellular host and microbe earlier this month.
The key to NIH’s potential vaccine design is a part of the virus called the “spinal helix.” It’s a helical structure inside the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it attach to and infect our cells.
Many current vaccines target the spike protein. But none of them specifically target the spinal cord. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to focus on this part of the pathogen. While many regions of the spike protein change greatly when the virus mutates, the spinal helix does Not.
This gives scientists “hope that an antibody that targets this region will be more durable and more broadly effective,” Joshua Tan, lead scientist on the NIH team, told The Daily Beast.
Vaccines that target and ‘bind’ the region of the receptor binding domain of the spike protein could lose effectiveness if the virus develops within that region. The great thing about the spina helix from an immunological point of view is that it doesn’t mutate. At least it’s not mutated morethree years after the COVID pandemic.
Thus, a vaccine that binds the spinal helix in SARS-CoV-2 should last a long time. And it should work for all other coronaviruses, including spinal cord—and there are dozens, including several like SARS-CoV-1 and MERS, which have already made the jump from animal populations to cause outbreaks in humans.
To test their hypothesis, NIH researchers extracted antibodies from 19 patients who had recovered from COVID and tested them on samples from five different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS. Of the 55 different antibodies, most were directed at parts of the virus that tend to mutate heavily. Only 11 targeted the spinal cord.
But 11, who went after the spinal coil, on average worked better on four coronaviruses. (A fifth virus, HCoV-NL63, rejected all antibodies.) The NIH team isolated the best antibody for the spinal cord, COV89-22, and also tested it in hamsters infected with the latest subvariant omicron variant of COVID. “Hamsters treated with COV89-22 showed a reduced pathology score,” the team noted.
The results are promising. “These results identify a class of … antibodies that are generally neutralizing [coronaviruses] by targeting the stem helix,” the researchers wrote.
Don’t break out the champagne yet. “While these data are useful for vaccine design, we did not conduct vaccination trials in this study and therefore cannot draw definitive conclusions regarding the efficacy of stem-helix-based vaccines,” the NIH team cautioned.
It’s one thing to test antibodies on hamsters. It’s another thing to develop an entirely new class of vaccine, conduct trials and get it approved. “It’s really hard and most things that start out as good ideas fail for one reason or another,” James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast.
And while the antibodies to the spinal cord appear to be wide effective, it is clear how they pass against more specific antibodies. In other words, a spine-helix sting may work against a number of different but related viruses, but less well against a single virus than a sting specifically tailored for that virus. “Further trials are needed to assess whether they offer sufficient protection in humans,” Tan said of the anti-spinal cord antibodies.
There is still a long way to go before the spina bifida vaccine is available at the corner drug store. And there are many things that could disrupt this work. Additional studies may contradict the NIH team’s findings. The new vaccine design may not work as well in humans as it does in hamsters.
The new sting could also prove unsafe, impractical to manufacture, or too expensive for widespread use. Barton Haynes, an immunologist at Duke University, told The Daily Beast that he looked at spine-helix vaccine designs last year and concluded that they were too expensive to justify the large investment. The main problem, he said, is that anti-spinal cord antibodies are less potent and “difficult to induce” from their parental B cells.
The more the pharmaceutical industry has to work to produce a vaccine and the more vaccine it has to pack into a single dose to compensate for the lower potency, the less cost effective the vaccine becomes for mass production.
Maybe a spine helix jab is in our future. Or maybe not. In any case, it is encouraging that scientists are making incremental steps toward a more universal vaccine against the coronavirus. One that could work against various related viruses for years.
COVID, for example, is not going anywhere. And with each mutation there is a risk that current vaccines will no longer be able to detect it. What we need is a mutation-resistant vaccine.
Scientists have made a breakthrough in the development of a new vaccine that could finally defeat COVID
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