‘Highly scalable’: Univ of Pittsburgh scientists announces promising breakthrough with potential COVID-19 vaccine

A potential vaccine for the coronavirus may have been discovered by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Research already conducted on the similar coronaviruses SARS and MERS helped the scientists quickly conduct their studies and report the latest findings on Thursday in The Lancet’s EBioMedicine.

(Source: WPXI-TV)

The vaccine could be available quickly enough to “significantly impact the spread of disease,” according to the study, which indicated that the vaccine would be administered to patients via a small, fingertip-sized patch which contains 400 tiny “microneedles” that are made up of sugar and protein and produces enough antibodies to neutralize the virus.

“It’s actually pretty painless. It feels kind of like Velcro,” Dr. Louis Falo, professor and chair of dermatology at Pitt’s School of Medicine and UPMC, said.

“We knew exactly where to fight this new virus,” Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery at the Pitt School of Medicine and a co-senior author of the report, said, noting the SARS and MERS studies.

“These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2, teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,” Gambotto said of the new coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. “That’s why it’s important to fund vaccine research. You never know where the next pandemic will come from.”

“Our ability to rapidly develop this vaccine was a result of scientists with expertise in diverse areas of research working together with a common goal,” Falo said of the vaccine being called PittCoVacc, which is short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine.

According to a UPMC news release:

The system also is highly scalable. The protein pieces are manufactured by a “cell factory” — layers upon layers of cultured cells engineered to express the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein — that can be stacked further to multiply yield. Purifying the protein also can be done at industrial scale. Mass-producing the microneedle array involves spinning down the protein-sugar mixture into a mold using a centrifuge. Once manufactured, the vaccine can sit at room temperature until it’s needed, eliminating the need for refrigeration during transport or storage.


“For most vaccines, you don’t need to address scalability to begin with,” Gambotto said. “But when you try to develop a vaccine quickly against a pandemic that’s the first requirement.”

Within two weeks of the vaccine being applied to test mice, enough antibodies were generated to fight the coronavirus. Though the animals have not been studied over a longer-term, researchers noted that mice that were given the MERS-CoV vaccine showed a sufficient level of antibodies were produced that would neutralize the virus for at least a year.

With a hope to start human clinical trials quickly, the scientists have applied for an investigational new drug approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which they hope will be fast-tracked in light of the spreading pandemic which has infected more than one million people worldwide.

“Testing in patients would typically require at least a year and probably longer,” Falo said. “This particular situation is different from anything we’ve ever seen, so we don’t know how long the clinical development process will take. Recently announced revisions to the normal processes suggest we may be able to advance this faster.”


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