Brisbane researchers in world-leading bid to develop coronavirus vaccine
Updated: 14 July 2020
A team of Brisbane-based researchers at The University of Queensland is working swiftly to devise a vaccine for the novel coronavirus with human trials commencing this month.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has asked UQ and its research partners to use its ‘rapid response’ pipeline to create a COVID-19 vaccine that could potentially be among the first on the world stage.
CEPI is an international foundation funded by a consortium of sovereign nations and private organisations, including the Australian Government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Queensland Government and the Australian Government, along with generous philanthropic donors, have also offered significant financial support for UQ’s COVID-19 vaccine project.
UQ’s three-year partnership with CEPI began in January 2019 to develop the ‘molecular clamp’, a versatile vaccine platform invented by UQ scientists that allows for the rapid generation of new vaccines against multiple viral pathogens.
The researchers have made considerable progress using the molecular clamp technology to create their vaccine candidate just three weeks after the virus’s gene sequence was released by Chinese researchers.
The UQ vaccine has already passed an important milestone, showing the ability to raise high levels of antibodies that can neutralise the virus, as demonstrated in early pre-clinical testing through collaboration with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.
Professor Paul Young, the head of the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said the results were an excellent indication that the vaccine worked as expected.
“We were particularly pleased that the strength of the antibody response was even better than those observed in samples from COVID-19 recovered patients,” he said.
The CEPI and UQ have since entered into an agreement with Australian-based global biotech leader CSL Limited to support clinical development and industrial-scale manufacturing.
Phase one human trials began in Brisbane on 13 July. Should the clinical trials be successful, a vaccine could be available in 2021, with the initial phase of large-scale production planned to take place at CSL’s biotech manufacturing facilities in Melbourne.
Using the molecular clamp technology, vaccines can be developed without using a live form of the virus. Instead, researchers start with a DNA sequence, and produce the same protein found on the surface of the live virus. That protein is then delivered with an adjuvant — an immunological agent — to elicit a strong immune response, providing protection from the virus to those who are vaccinated.
Associate Professor Keith Chappell, from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, says the molecular clamp technology has been key to the speedy development of a potential vaccine.
“The molecular clamp technology provides stability to the viral protein that is the primary target for our immune defence,” he explains.
“The technology has been designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and animal viruses and has shown promising results in the laboratory targeting viruses such as influenza, Ebola, Nipah and MERS coronavirus.”
The molecular clamp technology has been patented by UniQuest, UQ’s commercialisation company, whose portfolio also includes the celebrated HPV vaccine, Gardasil; the internationally acclaimed Triple-P Positive Parenting Program; and UQ’s superconductor technology, which is used in most of the world’s Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines.