Three NRP 78 research projects on new vaccines against coronavirus

In NRP 78 three projects, each with a different approach, are looking for a vaccine against SARS-Cov-2 and are already generating promising results.

The decisive factors in containing the Covid-19 pandemic are still whether further vaccines can be developed and widely administered, and how well the immunity conferred by vaccination also stands up to new virus mutations.
Three research projects which are part of NRP 78 are taking on these challenges, each with a different approach. The common factor linking them is that they are developing vaccines that are easier and less expensive to manufacture than those already on the market.

An optimised mRNA vaccine

mRNA-based vaccines, in particular, represent a double challenge in terms of manufacture and storage because the lipid nanoparticles as carriers of the mRNA are often unstable, yet must still be able to transport the mRNA into the cell efficiently. Steve Pascolo, an immunologist at University Hospital Zurich, is attempting to solve both these problems in his research project. His team has already formulated a promising so-called polyplex that is not only economical to manufacture and particularly stable but also has good properties in terms of transporting the mRNA into the cell. While looking for an improved carrier, Pascolo, who is a pioneer in mRNA research, is also continuing his work on an optimised form of the synthetic mRNA that produces the necessary antigens to SARSS-Cov-2.


Developing an attenuated live vaccine

Volker Thiel, a virologist at the University of Bern, is working on a different type of vaccine. He and his team are developing an attenuated live vaccine. This approach has already proved effective in various vaccines, including those against measles. In this development the targeted modification of the viral genome, in particular, is decisive in ensuring that the vaccine works, that the vaccinated individual produces antibodies and that the individual does not become ill. The research group is successfully developing two candidate vaccines up to the end of the preclinical phase, and this should ultimately pave the way to a further vaccine that is both safe and affordable. The potential of live vaccines like this lies in the better protection that they confer against dangerous virus mutations. Moreover, the vaccine can be administered as a nasal spray and thus strengthen the immune defence in the mucous membranes.


Bacillus subtilis as a vaccine platform

Cornel Fraefel, a virologist at Zurich University, is following a similarly simple, yet no less operationally complex and novel approach. His vaccine research is based on bacterial spores into which parts of the genetic code for SARS-CoV-2 are incorporated. The spores are very heat-stable and resistant to environmental factors, and they could be administered as an oral vaccine. The research group has already produced modified bacterial spores of this kind, and the next step will be to test their immune response.