April 29, 2020 — The San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics has awarded $200,000 for a collaborative study to develop a novel vaccine to combat COVID-19. Within days of the Stay Home/Work Safe directive issued by the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics (SAPPT) organized and issued a call for proposals to combat COVID-19. After a week, 17 proposals were received and one team was selected, a consortium of scientists from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed), The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and UT Health San Antonio. The Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio, which promotes collaboration in vaccine research, will contribute 25% of the $200,000 award to reflect the same shared mission of collaborative research across the 4-institute consortium.
“We are so fortunate to have this existing and deep collaboration between the four SAPPT institutions here in San Antonio already in place and developing vaccines,” said Dr. Taylor Eighmy, President of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “The team will be using their vaccine development platform to develop a SARS CoV-2 vaccine as soon as possible— we want to turn the full collaborative power of our doctors, scientists and bioengineers against this pandemic threat.”
Led by microbiologist Dr. Karl Klose, director of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (STCEID) and professor of microbiology at UTSA, the team’s goal is to develop a novel vaccine to combat COVID-19 based on decades of work on another bio-threat, tularemia. Also known as “rabbit fever”, it is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis and is a classified Tier 1 select agent. Klose’s work on tularemia with its prototype vaccine platform may have direct applicability to COVID-19, as both are respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling microbes into the lung.
Klose’s vaccine prototype has already been developed to an advanced stage where they are now working with scientists at Southwest Research Institute on formulations for eventual human use.
It has been a long journey. Dr. Klose has been studying F. tularensis since 2001. After 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, there was a heightened desire to address bio-threats such as anthrax, the plague, and tularemia, and develop therapeutics and preventive measures. Because so little was known about the bacterium that causes tularemia, Klose’s lab spent years studying how F. tularensis causes disease.
During their studies, they discovered how to inactivate the organism’s ability to cause disease, and this led to the identification of a live vaccine candidate. This live vaccine is safe and effective in several different animal models, including non-human primates. Since the tularemia vaccine can induce protection against F. tularensis within the lungs, Klose’s team aims to adapt the vaccine to induce protection against the SARS CoV-2 virus.
“Because it’s a living organism, we can engineer our tularemia vaccine to produce “pieces” of the SARS CoV-2 virus, which will allow the host to recognize it and make antibodies against it. We hope that these antibodies will protect people against COVID-19, in addition to tularemia,” explains Klose.
The team brings decades of expertise in their respective fields.
Dr. Kenneth Carson at SwRI has been working with Klose to develop the tularemia vaccine for eventual human use. A chemist, Dr. Carson is formulating the vaccine to give it optimal properties that will make it effective and safe, including optimal release times, absorption rates, and other drug discovery considerations.
Dr. Peter Dube at UT Health San Antonio has been working with Klose on developing the tularemia vaccine to protect against anthrax and plague. An expert in microbiology and immunology, Dube has been studying Yersinia pestis, which causes the plague, for many years. His particular expertise is understanding the host immune response to vaccines.
Dr. Luis Giavedoni, at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, brings his expertise in evaluating immune correlates of vaccines against viral diseases, as well as state-of-the-art facilities to work with the live SARS CoV-2 virus. A virologist, Dr. Giavedoni specializes in studying HIV, which shares some similarities with the current SARS CoV-2 virus. He is working on developing HIV vaccines utilizing non-human primate models.
“Vaccine development takes a long time. There has to be rigorous testing in different animal models, and then small-scale studies in humans. The process is designed to ensure the safety of the people who take the vaccine. We will learn a lot from this process, including how to use a live vaccine platform to protect against an emerging disease. Hopefully in the future, we can respond quicker with a vaccine against the next pandemic,” adds Klose.
Dr. Joanne Turner, Executive Director of Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio, expressed enthusiasm over the novel approach of the research team.
“The Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio’s mission is to support communication on vaccine research, perform public outreach and education on vaccines with city partners, and to fund innovative collaborative research on vaccine development in San Antonio. We are excited to partner with SAPPT to fast track research efforts related to ending this pandemic”.
Between the four institutions, essential labs working on COVID-19 are open. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members and scientists are working in the labs, albeit under different circumstances with physical distancing, staggered and reduced shifts and other safety considerations.
“The scientific community rallies when there is a health emergency because they have the expertise to devise solutions. Around the world, researchers are working hard to find the best possible interventions against COVID-19. It’s amazing to see scientists working 24/7 to solve this problem. Remember that these researchers aren’t just driven by scientific inquiry, they’re also driven as members of society, because COVID-19 is affecting their lives and those of their families, friends, and communities. All the collective work of the scientific community will not only help fight this particular pandemic but it also lays the groundwork to tackle other emergent diseases in the future,” concludes Dr. Klose.