Texas Tech researchers join the race for a vaccine against COVID-19

Apr 29, 2020

Imagine if instead of having to get your annual  flu shot, you’d only need one for the rest of your life. That’s what Dr. Harvinder Gill and Dr. Steven Presley have been working on for the past year. And now they’ve started applying their findings towards a vaccine for Coronavirus as well.

Dr. Gill is a professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University. He compares this future universal flu vaccine to that of the Hepatitis B vaccination that is given to children. They receive a round of three shots and are set for life. “Could we come up with a similar design that would work for the flu as well,” Gill asks. That was the main objective of the grant they received from the National Institute of Health back in 2019.
 

The methods they’re using to fight strains of the influenza virus are a bit unconventional. Usually for a flu vaccine, the virus would be cut up into pieces—or inactivated it as Gill says—and pump it into the human body. The body detects it and builds immunity towards the virus without actually being infected and then voila you’re ready to face the flu. But they’re trying something different.

Viruses are made up of ribonucleic acid (RNA)—similar to how humans and animals are made up of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—which contains their genetic information. In order to multiply, viruses must infect another cell, in this case a human cell. Once it infects the cell, it hijacks the machinery of the cell to replicate its own genome.

Gill explains that this copying process is not foolproof and errors, or mutations, start showing up. This is what scientists call a “drift,” which causes small changes to the virus. This is important to keep in mind when creating a vaccine. “You have to look at all the different strains that are circulating in the humans,” Gill says. “You basically have to come up with a design [that incorporates] proteins which are constant and conserved throughout the different strains.”

He says that the first step in their work is to identify what sequences are conserved in all strains of the virus. Basically, a virus is made up of proteins. And proteins are made up of hundreds of amino acids. The sequences they’re looking for are the consistent amino acid sequences. He gives this example:

“Let’s just say there are 26 amino acids—A to Z. We have to pinpoint which out of those A to Z [are conserved]—let’s just say DEFGHIJ are the ones that are conserved—So you pick those out and you know that those are conserved in all the flu strains.”

After you identify those sequences he explains, “[They] are generally so small, the body doesn’t perceive them as foreign, so our body is not able to create immune responses against those tiny sequences.” That’s when gold nanoparticles come into the equation.

Gold nanoparticles work as a major component of their vaccine method. Then they put the sequences into the gold nanoparticles, which act like a delivery service to the body. The particles look like a virus to the body and ultimately trick it into an immune response to attack those small sequences.

In the case of the coronavirus, once the threat of it became apparent, he and his colleagues decided to take action. They immediately pulled information on the COVID-19 strain from the protein database—yes, that exists—and identified the conserved sequences.

In early February, Dr. Gill and his colleagues quickly shifted gears in their work, not only to help create the vaccine, but also to assist with Virus Transport Media (VTM). COVID-19 testing clinics rely on VTM for transporting patient samples to the labs where tests are completed. And like PPE and toilet paper, VTM has been in short supply.
 

Dr. Gaurav Joshi single handedly prepared 10 thousand VTM vials.

According to Gill, his team has dedicated much of their energy towards preparing VTM vials. In fact, his colleague, Dr. Gaurav Joshi single handedly prepared 10 thousand vials. They’re currently working on getting their next 10 thousand ready.

Over the past two months, Gill has uncovered some interesting facts about the coronavirus. For one, the inactivation method that usually works for the flu, does not work for the coronavirus. So, the gold nanoparticles come back into play. Right now, “There’s more nonconventional, MRNA or RNA-based vaccines that are being tried,” he says. Their gold particle method is one of these unconventional studies. “It just makes the vaccine production a little bit different than the conventional flu vaccine.”

While the researchers at Tech have raced through the initial steps of the vaccine production, there’s still a way to go. They’ve established the formula, now they’re onto the testing phase— first mice and then humans.

According to Gill, vaccine production typically takes anywhere from three to five years before it’s available to the public. But because of the high demand for this particular vaccine, he expects it to take 12 to 18 months. But until then, he hopes people will continue being careful. Facial coverings and washing your hands are the bare minimum he recommends, otherwise we could see this virus spring back.

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