A team at McMaster University is working on a second-generation vaccine, which are designed to protect against viral variants

C/O Brian Lichty

By: Natalie Chen, Contributor

As of March 6, 2021, approximately six out of every 100 Canadians have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 26 out of every 100 Americans.

While Canada has approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, researchers have also been hard at work at McMaster University’s Robert E. Fitzhenry Vector Laboratory to develop two second-generation COVID-19 vaccines.

Brian Lichty, a principal investigator of the vaccine development project and an associate professor at McMaster’s Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, explained the novelty behind these vaccines.

The first-generation of COVID-19 vaccines contain a spike protein, which will teach our immune system to recognize and protect us from COVID-19. The second-generation vaccines will also use the spike protein but are trivalent, indicating that it is composed of three structures found on the COVID-19 virus SARS-CoV-2.

The two additional components that the second-generation vaccines contain are called the nucleoprotein and the polymerase. As they are less likely to mutate, the second-generation vaccines with these two components of the coronavirus may provide increased immunity against variants of SARS-CoV-2.

“We’re hoping that the broader immunity that our vaccine[s] can generate will help control even the variants. We’ve actually designed [the vaccines] to potentially give some protection against related coronaviruses,” said Lichty.

“We’re hoping that the broader immunity that our vaccine[s] can generate will help control even the variants. We’ve actually designed [the vaccines] to potentially give some protection against related coronaviruses.”

Brian lichty

Another novel aspect of the second-generation vaccines is the provision of the booster dose via inhalation. Similar to using a puffer, the vaccines can be aerosolized and inhaled by the recipient.

The idea and the technology used to create these COVID-19 vaccines stemmed from previous vaccine trials for tuberculosis conducted by Dr. Zhou Xing and Dr. Fiona Smaill, who are principal investigators on the vaccine development project alongside Lichty and Matthew Miller.

There are two main benefits to this approach. Since memory in our immune system tends to remain in the area where the pathogen is last found, targeting the upper airways and the lungs — the primary points of contact for SARS-CoV-2 — would provide greater and longer-lasting protection.

“The other benefit to [this] route is, we actually can get away with a much lower dose than injecting [the vaccine] into the arm. If you think about it, that would allow for more people to be vaccinated with the same starting amount of material, which is important nowadays because we’re struggling to vaccinate all the people that need it,” explained Lichty.

Sam Afkhami, a co-lead researcher working under the principal investigators and a recent Ph.D. graduate from McMaster’s medical sciences program, expressed his hopes regarding the impact of the novel project.

“We’re hoping to show essentially the community and the world that thinking outside the box of traditional vaccine strategies can provide us with avenues of developing vaccines with broader immunity,” said Afkhami.

“We’re hoping to show essentially the community and the world that thinking outside the box of traditional vaccine strategies can provide us with avenues of developing vaccines with broader immunity.”

Sam Afkhami

The Robert E. Fitzhenry Vector Laboratory, the vaccine manufacturer, was created in 2004 and was the first of its kind in Canada. The research conducted within the laboratory is part of Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemic and Biological Threats, a McMaster initiative of interdisciplinary teams of global experts to prepare for future outbreaks. 

As one of Canada’s only institutions equipped to isolate SARS-CoV-2, Canada’s Global Nexus has partnered with the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization to spearhead vaccine development, the creation of new diagnostic tools and to produce clinical trials.

Afkhami and Ph.D. student Michael D’Agostino, another co-lead researcher of vaccine development and a member of the Miller Laboratory at McMaster, have also emphasized the importance of internal collaboration at McMaster that has led to the creation of the vaccines.

“The collaborative environment that we have here is next to none, and I really want to highlight how important the collaboration has been to the rapidity of the work we’ve done so far and getting these vaccines from theory to pre-clinical testing to eventual clinical application,” expressed Afkhami.

“The collaborative environment that we have here is next to none, and I really want to highlight how important the collaboration has been to the rapidity of the work we’ve done so far and getting these vaccines from theory to pre-clinical testing to eventual clinical application.” 

Sam Afkhami

“There are so many people that are involved behind the scenes, and none of this would be possible without them for sure,” added D’Agostino.

For undergraduate students interested in scientific research, D’Agostino and Afkhami also shared advice on how to gain hands-on experience.

“Don’t be afraid to contact the professors that teach your courses. If they give a lesson that’s something you can see yourself interested in or you want to learn more about, I’d suggest reaching out to them,” D’Agostino explained. “Send an email seeing if you could even just hang around the lab [and] help out where you can.”

To those passionate about virology, Afkhami also recommended the McMaster Immunology Research Centre.

“Overall, it’s a great centre if you’re very interested in research and things like virology, vaccine development or just basic immunology,” Afkhami said. “MIRC is one of the most fantastic places, I think, [where] you can get that type of experience in Ontario.”

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