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Wyss Researchers Develop Vaccine Platform Potentially Effective Against COVID-19 and Other Diseases

Researchers at the Wyss Institute are focusing on projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers at the Wyss Institute are focusing on projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute are developing a vaccine structure that could more effectively combat COVID-19 and other viruses.

Originating from cancer vaccine research led by Harvard Bioengineering professor David J. Mooney, the vaccine technology — OMNIVAX — provides a new approach to stimulating and strengthening the immune system against infectious diseases such as E. coli.

OMNIVAX employs a unique design and material that allows for the combination of different antigens – foreign substances found in viruses that initially stimulate the immune system – and adjuvants, substances which prolong the immune system’s response to antigens.

“We call it OMNIVAX because we're able to put in antigens very simply – in general, we're able to just add them to our solution,” said Edward J. Doherty, a Wyss lead staff scientist on the project. “We don't have to do any chemistry, we don't have to build them, we don't have to conjugate them because of the nature of this mesoporous silica material that we use. It absorbs most of these components quite readily, and it has massive surface area.”

Though it was not invented to address the novel coronavirus pandemic, Doherty said he and other researchers have redirected the application of OMNIVAX in recent months to focus on COVID-19.

“When COVID came around in April, Harvard labs shut down except for folks working on COVID,” Doherty said. “So then we mounted a project against COVID and we began incorporating COVID antigens, protein antigens, into our vaccine system and vaccinating animals.”

OMNIVAX’s structure forces the immune system’s response to be more efficient by forcing dendritic cells – cells that make the immune system aware of present antigens – to regularly interact with specific antigens, according to Doherty.

Initial test results in mice have been promising, showing increases in production of antibodies against COVID-19. Additionally, blood from vaccinated animals has shown that OMNIVAX could prevent the infection of cultured cells by a COVID-19 pseudovirus.

But more OMNIVAX tests on animals at risk of COVID-19 are still necessary, Doherty said.

“We're doing primarily rodent studies,” he said. “Rodent studies are non-challenged animals, so these animals do not have COVID. The next step we would do is animals that then are challenged. So these are very specific standardized models that we'd have, that we are getting involved with.”

Doherty also said his team hopes to eventually create a company that works on combating a wide range of disease with OMNIVAX.

For now, however, the team’s focus will remain trained on COVID-19.

“COVID, in all honesty, is a very interesting and challenging place to work, because there are numerous vaccines that are already in Phase Two and Three human trials,” Doherty said. “We then have to think very carefully about attributes and whether or not we can develop an attribute that these others don't seem to be demonstrating – responsiveness to safety duration – then it might be something worth pursuing.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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FASResearchSciences DivisionFaculty NewsCoronavirusCoronavirus Feature