Researchers harness new technology for rapid COVID-19 vaccine development

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated last month, scientists working for a spinoff of Massachusetts General Hospital called Voltron Therapeutics started looking for partners to help develop a vaccine as quickly as possible. They formed a joint venture with Hoth Therapeutics, named HaloVax, and tasked it with using a vaccine technology developed at MGH to find a COVID-19 candidate.

Now HaloVax is preparing to take its COVID-19 vaccine into animal trials this month, Voltron announced late last week. It hopes to start safety testing in people soon after the preclinical work is completed. It's one of several product candidates emerging from newly formed alliances that are focused on harnessing new technology to speed up vaccine development.

The Voltron candidate came from a platform developed at MGH called VaxCelerate, which is designed to quickly generate and test “self-assembling” vaccines that spark immune responses to viruses. The experimental COVID-19 vaccine uses a heat shock protein to activate the immune system, rather than one of the chemical adjuvants that are commonly employed by vaccine developers, the company said. The vaccine will also include a variable component that targets specific characteristics of COVID-19.

“The self-assembling vaccine has been designed to be highly adaptable, designed for safety and allows for seamless modifications in the face of potential genetic changes in the pathogen,” said Mark Poznansky, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at MGH, in a statement.

Prior to getting recruited to join the COVID-19 vaccine effort, two-year-old Hoth was developing topical drugs that link zinc chelators to antibiotics. The company raised $7 million in an initial public offering last year to help fund its lead program in pediatric eczema.

RELATED: Amgen teams up with Adaptive to both treat and prevent COVID-19

Other research groups are forming partnerships designed to speed the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists at Flinders University in South Australia announced last week that they teamed up with Oracle and an Australian biotech company called Vaxine to analyze the COVID-19 virus and pinpoint a vaccine candidate.

The Flinders team focused on how the spike protein on the surface of COVID-19 attaches to a receptor called ACE2 in order to infect human cells. They then designed a vaccine to block the interaction. By using a cloud-based technology from Oracle, they were able to complete the analysis and vaccine design much more quickly than older development platforms would have allowed, the scientists said. The researchers are now working with scientists in the U.S. on animal trials, they said in a statement.

One of the most high-profile pairings of bio knowhow and advanced technology emerged last week when Amgen teamed up with Adaptive Biotechnologies to work on a treatment they believe could be used to prevent or treat COVID-19. Adaptive will use high-throughput screening to examine the genetic characteristics of B-cell receptors from patients who have recovered from the virus. After they find antibodies that can neutralize COVID-19, Amgen will select, develop and manufacture a lead candidate, the company said.