The University of Cambridge announced in September 2023 that a vaccine antigen technology developed in collaboration with spin-out DIOSynVax in early 2020 demonstrated protection against all known variants of SARS-CoV-2 and other major coronaviruses. With a paper published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the team show that the vaccine candidate provoked a strong immune response against a range of coronaviruses.
The paper describes how, to meet the need for increased coverage to all the viruses of the sarbecovirus subgenus of betacoronaviruses, the researchers used a digitally immune-optimised synthetic vaccine (DIOSynVax) technology to design antigens. The antigens, computationally immune-optimised and structurally engineered, are selected in vivo to induce immune responses across a group of related viruses.
DIOSynVax combines computational biology, protein structure, immune optimisation, and synthetic biology to “maximise and widen the spectrum of protection” provided by vaccines. The researchers target the “Achilles heel” of the virus through this approach; identifying critical regions through computer simulations and selecting conserved structurally engineered antigens.
Professor Jonathan Heeney of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at University of Cambridge believes that this approach creates a vaccine “with a broad effect that viruses will have trouble getting around”. The chosen, optimised antigen is reportedly compatible with all vaccine delivery systems: it has been administered as a DNA immunogen, a weakened virus, and an mRNA vaccine. Every time the antigen generated a strong immune response. Following animal trials, the first-in-human trials are taking place.
Opening vaccine doors
Professor Heeney contrasts this technology with “current vaccines that use wild-type viruses or parts or viruses that have caused trouble in the past”.
“This technology combines lessons learned from nature’s mistakes and aims to protect us from the future.”
The synthetic antigens “generate broad immune responses, targeted to the key sites of the virus”.
“It opens the door for vaccines against viruses that we don’t yet know about. This is an exceptionally different vaccine technology – it’s a real turning point.”