Gritstone adds COVID-19 to the pipeline with NIAID-supported vaccine

A pipette labeled Covid-19
Like the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, Gritstone’s candidate targets the spike protein of the new coronavirus, but it also contains other targets that could help boost T-cell immunity. (Getty/Bill Oxford)

Gritstone Oncology, the biotech working on cancer vaccines based on traditional infectious disease immunology, is bringing that approach back to its roots. It’s working on a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, that could also work against other viruses in this family in the case of a future pandemic.

The company is developing the vaccine alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided a grant to bankroll preclinical work, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which will carry out a phase 1 study through the Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium.

RELATED: Looking beyond COVID-19's spike protein for the next wave of vaccines

The vaccine is based on Gritstone’s EDGE technology—which uses machine learning to predict antigens presented by tumor cells or cells infected by a virus that the immune system can see—and work out of the La Jolla Institute of Immunology, which has studied hundreds of patients recovering from COVID-19. Under a license agreement with La Jolla, Gritstone has access to epitopes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus—a part of the virus to which antibodies bind—identified in its studies.

Like the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, Gritstone’s candidate targets the spike protein of the new coronavirus, but it also contains other targets that could help boost T-cell immunity.

“Gritstone’s vaccine may provide more comprehensive viral protection by inducing a better combination of T cell responses and neutralizing antibodies as compared to the currently available vaccines,” said Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., director of Saint Louis University’s Center for Vaccine Development and Division of Infectious Diseases, Allergy and Immunology, National Vaccine Advisory Committee member, and protocol chair and lead principal investigator of Gritstone’s COVID-19 study, in a statement.

“It is important that we move forward with developing these next generation vaccines because we do not yet know whether the existing vaccines that have been granted emergency use authorization will provide long-term immunity or prevent transmission. Improved vaccines that can accomplish these additional benefits may be needed to continue mitigating the ongoing pandemic,” Hoft added.

RELATED: Fierce JPM Week: Vaccines aren't enough. We need more COVID-19 treatments, too

Besides potentially provoking a stronger immune response than the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines does, a new vaccine aimed at targets beyond the spike protein could come in handy in the face of new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

What’s more, Gritstone hopes this approach could make the vaccine useful against other coronaviruses as well as the one that causes COVID-19.

“As well as a potential role in protection against SARS-CoV-2, the notion of using evolutionarily conserved viral antigens (in addition to Spike) as the basis for a vaccine that induces antibody and T-cell responses to provide protection against future coronavirus pandemics is an exciting concept that springs from our current work. We plan to pursue this in 2021,” said Karin Jooss, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Gritstone.