UAB biotechnology aids hunt for novel COVID-19 DNA vaccine

The research is led by an Oregon cancer research institute, in collaboration with two biotech companies and the National Institutes of Health.

University of Alabama at BirminghamTriAltus1Dmitry Vassylyev, Ph.D. biotechnology is being used in Oregon in the hunt for a novel DNA vaccine for COVID-19.

The Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence Cancer Institute, is using the protein purification technology manufactured by TriAltus Bioscience — a UAB spinoff company housed at Innovation Depot, Birmingham — to purify the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19. The protein will be used for a sensitive immunology assay technique called an ELISA to measure the effectiveness of the new DNA vaccine, which is intended to evoke an immune response against the spike protein.

The Chiles Research Institute, based in Portland, Oregon, has filed an application for a first-in-human clinical vaccine trial with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The spike protein is like a key for the virus to get into the cell,” said Hong-Ming Hu, Ph.D., chief of Providence’s Cancer Immunobiology Lab. “Antibody against the spike protein is critical for immunity. We’re in a race to develop this vaccine as quickly as possible.” 

Hu has already tested the TriAltus ultra-high affinity purification system to purify spike protein grown from Chinese hamster ovary cells. “The purification works. It’s critical to allow us to get spike protein in the shortest amount of time, with good purity.”

“It’s rewarding to know that our product can help expedite the search for a COVID-19 vaccine,” said TriAltus CEO Bob Shufflebarger. “Our CL7/Im7 system is helping Dr. Hu and his colleagues attain high protein purity in a single-step process that saves critical time and boosts research productivity.”

The CL7 technology was invented by a team led by Dmitry Vassylyev, Ph.D., TriAltus co‑founder and professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at UAB. His novel method improved the high-yield, high-purity, high-activity purification of complex proteins by 10- to 500-fold.

Vassylyev described it as “potentially the most efficient and universal tool for high-throughput studies of many significant biological systems” and said it may aid large-scale production of therapeutic proteins.

High-yield, high-purity, high-activity purification, or HHH, is the Holy Grail for structural and industrial applications. The UAB single-step purification scheme overcame significant weaknesses of commercially available purification systems. 

Coronavirus. COVID-19. 3D RenderThe Chiles Research Institute vaccine candidate uses DNA that codes for the spike protein of the virus. Upon injection of the vaccine, the DNA should be taken up by target cells, which would then produce the spike protein. That protein would then evoke a protective immune response. Their vaccine candidate will also include DNA for production of the immune-boosting signaling protein interleukin 12, which stimulates immune system T cells. 

DNA vaccines are a third-generation vaccine approach. Several have been approved for veterinary use, but none have been approved for human use yet.

The Chiles Research Institute was able to pivot quickly from cancer research to COVID-19 research, following a regularly scheduled phone call between Bernard Fox, Ph.D., the Harder Family Endowed Chair for Cancer Research and head of Providence’s Laboratory of Molecular and Tumor Immunology, and OncoSec, a San Diego biotechnology company. Fox and OncoSec realized that the same technology they are developing for cancers could also aid the fight against the novel coronavirus. 

Collaborators with the Chiles Research Institute and OncoSec are UbiVac, a biotechnology company located in Portland, Oregon, and the National Institutes of Health. 

The TriAltus biotechnology is licensed from UAB’s Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.