CSO, Sune Justesen, and CEO, Stephan Thorgrimsen, founders of Immunitrack
Q1) Can you perhaps explain a little about the general vaccine development strategy adopted by most companies today?
There is a need to develop fast an effective vaccine against Sars-CoV2. The vaccine strategy currently adopted by most companies is comparable to the flu strategy where surface antigen (HA protein for flu and Spike for Sars-CoV2) is applied to elicit antibodies that match virus neutralizing epitopes in the surface antigen. Just this week, the first patient was vaccinated with Modernas mRNA-1273, which encodes the spike protein. The coming months will hopefully give us an idea of the level of virus neutralizing titers and the potential efficacy of this and other vaccines.
One concern is that the virus may mutate in the epitope regions targeted by the neutralizing antibodies raised by the vaccine, in a phenomenon called “antigen drift”. This is a common event with flu viruses, and this is one of the reasons why new vaccines need to be developed for flu every year. In the case of Sars-CoV2, we do not even know at this stage whether vaccination with the spike protein will work at all. It is therefore crucial to understand how the immune system naturally copes with viral infection, and develop a vaccination strategy where the immune system readiness for coping with Sars-Cov2 is maximized.
Several studies with flu but also other viruses such as HCV and cytomegalovirus (CMV) have demonstrated that an effective viral clearance during virus infection and a reduction of the symptom severity is dependent on a proper CD4 and CD8 T cell activation (1). While CD8 T cell response is important for clearing viral infected human cells, presence of CD4 T cells is important for immune system memory of infection. The Sars-CoV2 virus encodes 10 different proteins, all having epitopes that can potentially stimulate an anti-viral immune response.
Q2) Immunitrack has initiated a project that may help the development of a Covid-19 vaccine. What is your approach?
Our company has a unique in vitro platform to assess epitopes (part of proteins) ability to stimulate the adaptive immune response (T cell response). We test the ability of epitopes to bind to receptors called Major Histocompatibility Complex I and II through in vitro MHC/epitope binding assays – our company has a unique combination of assays that provide highly reliable data. Presentation of epitopes by MHC on the surface of e.g. virus infected cells, dendritic cells and antibody producing cells (B cells) are the most decisive events in establishing a targeted and lasting adaptive immune response against viral threats. See figure 1in our report, which can be downloaded for free here.
Q3) You are collaborating with researchers at the University of Copenhagen. What is the nature of this collaboration?
We collaborate with the bioinformatical team at the Center of Genomic, Copenhagen University Hospital. They performed the bioinformatical work and we further analyzed the data by in vitro based assays to remove false positive datapoints. The result has just been published here and more than 1000 research groups globally have downloaded our data package. (The paper has now been downloaded 3000 times, and had 6500 abstract views in just 20 days, editors update)
We are now setting up more ambitious in vitro screening setups due to the fact that bioinformatical tools miss a lot of data. Our coming new datapackage will be used for studying patients with severe symptoms vs symptom free, at a hospital in the US and in Denmark. For now, we cannot come with more details, as the setup is still being discussed.
Q4) If you succeed, when would a vaccine based on your technology be on the market?
We believe that the information we are providing is essential for studying the immune response of patients to this new virus, and for developing a new powerful vaccine. We believe that vaccine projects using this type of data will be initiated within the next half year. Vaccine development typically takes 18-24 month. So, we will probably first see a vaccine based on this technology within the next 3 years.