The race to develop a coronavirus vaccine is well and truly under way – and some of the most promising research is happening right here in Australia.
Already, scientists across the country have been jabbing volunteers with potential COVID-19 vaccines to check for safety and to analyse their bodies’ immune responses.
On Monday, 120 volunteers in Brisbane started receiving their first doses of a potential vaccine developed by the University of Queensland.
Meanwhile, in Adelaide, human trials that started on July 2 at Royal Adelaide Hospital are showing encouraging signs.
Others are under way in Melbourne and Perth.
- To find out how virtual reality is being used to help scientists develop a cure for the coronavirus, click here.
There are many ways to try to tackle COVID-19, but all four clinical trials in Australia aim to target one specific part: The coronavirus’s spike protein.
The spike protein is the sticky and dangerous part of the coronavirus that latches onto the human cell and infects us.
If scientists can develop a vaccine to help our bodies recognise the spike protein and build a strong immune defence against it, the coronavirus won’t be able to infiltrate our cells and make us sick.
Here, The New Daily looks at two different approaches being tested in Australia.
The University of Queensland
UQ’s proposed vaccine uses an innovative piece of engineering technology called a ‘molecular clamp’.
This special clamp is designed to fuse together a synthetic spike protein so it looks just like the ones that protrude from the coronavirus.
Professor Trent Munro, project director of UQ’s coronavirus vaccine program, said the clamp was important because it “glues these three molecules together to form one complex”.
“When the virus is floating around in your system and your immune system tries to recognise it, the spike protein is the first molecule it will encounter and raise an immune response against,” he told The New Daily.
“That’s what we want to mimic with our vaccine.”
In addition to the clamp, UQ researchers have also added a special ingredient called an adjuvant, which acts as a turbo-charger to the body’s immune system.
Professor Munro said the combination of the clamp fused to the synthetic spike protein was a key part of the trickery.
“In isolation, it doesn’t do anything scary,” he said, but added no vaccine could be labelled “completely safe” until it had been rigorously tested in clinical trials.
All it does it trick our bodies into thinking it’s detected the coronavirus.
When this happens, our bodies will trigger a specific immune response that will make us better prepared to destroy the real coronavirus the next time it tries to infect us.
Adelaide-based company Vaxine
Like UQ, the scientists at Vaxine – a biotechnology company in Adelaide – have used a synthetic coronavirus spike protein in its vaccine.
But there is a key difference.
Instead of using a molecular clamp, the researchers have added a unique type of adjuvant.
This particular adjuvant is called ‘inulin’ and comes from the Belgium endive plant, also known as chicory.
“Inulin purified from Belgian endive is a white sugary powder that looks very much like table sugar if you saw it sitting in a bowl,” said Vaxine research director Professor Nikolai Petrovsky.
“By making inulin into these special microscopic particles, they are able to trigger the immune system and act as a turbo-charger to make it respond better to vaccines, thereby giving stronger protection.”
The best part?
There are no side effects, according to Professor Petrovsky.
“While some adjuvants may cause people to get fevers or flu-like symptoms, ours achieves the benefits of educating the immune system but without the side effects,” Professor Petrovsky said.
“Using synthetic proteins with our plant-based inulin adjuvant to induce strong protective immune responses against pandemic viruses is something we’ve done many times in animal and human trials over the last 15 years, so we know it works.
“It’s been very effective for SARS and MERS coronaviruses and various pandemic flu strains.”