The number of novel coronavirus infections rises daily around the world, triggering an almost unprecedented race to develop safe and effective virus vaccines. In response to this public health crisis, Precision Vaccines Program (PVP) scientists are on the front lines of developing a vaccine specifically targeted toward older populations.
The elderly are at the greatest risk of developing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Elderly individuals have a different immune system than healthy middle-aged adults
This is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome-2 coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions are far more vulnerable to falling victim to COVID-19.
Ofer Levy, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said: “Elderly individuals have a different immune system than healthy middle-aged adults and often do not respond as robustly to immunisation, so a one-size vaccine does not fit all.”
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An antigen currently used in vaccine development is the coronavirus spike protein.
This is named because the part of the virus that the immune system “remembers” sits atop the spike of a coronavirus particle.
Vaccine-induced antibodies, made by the immune system against the spike protein, can prevent infection.
PVP’s strategy is to combine the coronavirus spike protein with adjuvants – small molecules added to a vaccine to boost a person’s immune response.
Professor Levy added: “Overall, we are hoping that a precision adjuvant approach will assist the various ongoing vaccine efforts across the globe.
“Adjuvants can be crucial for getting a stronger, longer-lasting, broader immune response, especially among those with weakened immunity, like the elderly.”
The team’s approach is novel in the range and novelty of adjuvants being screened.
In addition to a collection of known vaccine adjuvants, the team will test new adjuvants it has discovered in the PVP’s National Institutes of Health-funded Adjuvant Discovery Program.
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Professor Levy added: “These adjuvants were discovered by screening against human cells.
“This species-specific approach represents an example of precision vaccinology.”
The PVP plans testing a numerous adjuvants and adjuvant combinations in human white blood cells sourced from older people.
Researchers will then study the adjuvant-induced immune responses.
Professor Levy said: “Our screen, comparing individual and combination adjuvants with and without the coronavirus antigen, will identify an adjuvant combination that most effectively induces an optimal immune response in the elderly.
“These screens will start immediately and continue over the next six to eight weeks.
“We’re hoping to have a clear signal within the next few months which adjuvanted vaccine to go forward with in clinical testing,” he added.
Adjuvant-based vaccine research usually does not consider species or age in the discovery and early development phases.
Professor Levy said: “Our use of age-specific human in vitro systems to de-risk and accelerate an adjuvanted vaccine tailored to the elderly is novel.
“In this way, we are bringing precision medicine to vaccinology.”
Adjuvants could also be a cost-saving strategy, the authors said, because the antigen is typically the most expensive part of a vaccine.