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Collaboration To Develop Gene-encoded Antibody Vaccine Against COVID-19 Is Underway

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Across the globe, scientists are working tirelessly to develop a safe and effective vaccine against the COVID-19 outbreak caused by SARS-Co-V2. In this critical time, collaboration is key – it enables the sharing of knowledge, resources and accelerates the speed of research and development.

Sorrento Therapeutics Inc. and SmartPharm Therapeutics Inc. recently announced a research and development collaboration in which they will work to develop a next-generation, gene-encoded antibody vaccine for COVID-19.

The collaboration will utilize monoclonal antibodies generated by Sorrento that will be encoded into a gene delivery system via SmartPharm's non-viral nanoparticle platform. This method is designed to directly neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the muscle of the recipient, reducing the potential for vaccine-induced side-effects in immunized people; a critical factor for consideration when immunizing elderly populations and immune-compromised individuals.

Technology Networks
spoke with SmartPharm's CEO Jose Trevejo to learn more about the collaboration and the next steps in the development of the vaccine.

Molly Campbell (MC): For our readers that may be unfamiliar, please can you explain what a gene-encoded antibody vaccine is? How do they differ to classical antigen-based vaccines?

Jose Trevejo (JT):
When your body fights off an infection it utilizes antibodies as a key method to bind and neutralize the virus. Classical antigen-based vaccines basically give you a key piece of the virus or a dead or disabled version of the virus to activate your immune system to produce antibodies that are protective. Therefore, it is still dependent on the immune system of the vaccinated person. We are trying to skip the step of activating the immune system and just have you produce an antibody that we have pre-engineered to neutralize the virus. This may be of particular importance in elderly and immune compromised individuals who respond poorly to classical vaccines.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): Can you tell us more about the collaboration between SmartPharm Therapeutics Inc. and Sorrento Therapeutics Inc.?

JT: Sorrento has utilized its antibody discovery platform and early access to COVID-19 samples in order to produce potent monoclonal antibody candidates against SARS-COV-2. We are taking advantage of their platform and proactive approach so that we may utilize these antibody candidates in our gene expression system with the goal of producing the antibody directly in the muscle.

LL: How does the next-generation, gene-encoded antibody that the companies are developing against COVID-19 work?

The approach uses a DNA vector that would be delivered into the muscle much like a regular vaccine. The key difference is that the DNA vector is designed to directly produce an antibody that would neutralize the virus and protect the individual from a serious infection.

What is the benefit of a gene-encoded antibody vaccine – why not just administer monoclonal antibodies intravenously as a prophylaxis for COVID-19? 

Monoclonal antibodies work well and are the basis of our approach but are somewhat costly to produce and usually require direct infusion to reach the levels needed for protection. They are probably more suitable for therapeutic application to hospitalized patients. Our approach takes advantage of the activity and specificity of a monoclonal antibody, but it would be more broadly deployable due to scalability and cost.

MC: Please can you expand on why this next-generation approach is particularly useful for immunizing susceptible populations, such as the elderly?

Literature has shown that the effectiveness of classical vaccines such as those for influenza can drop as much as 50% in the elderly compared to young adults. Given this disease is disproportionately affecting the elderly and immune-compromised, it is important to have an approach that would not be as dependent on the immune system of the individual.

MC: In the
press release, SmartPharm express that the novel gene-encoded antibody vaccine approach will "enable faster progression to the clinic, pending agreement with the FDA" – are you able to expand on how you are working to accelerate the development of the vaccine?

Firstly, many of the components of this approach have been de-risked from a clinical safety standpoint and secondly, we have set up a network of experienced collaborators and contract research organizations that are ready to move as quickly as possible. Finally, we have a lot of expertise in development of viral countermeasures that we bring to the table in order to increase efficiency of development. With all that said, we still have to get agreement from the FDA as it keeps a focus on safeguarding future patients while trying to move things along as fast as they are able to in this extraordinary situation.

Jose Trevejo, SmartPharm Therapeutics, CEO, was speaking with Molly Campbell and Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Science Writers, Technology Networks.