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Nov. 17, 2020

Developing a unique vaccine for COVID-19

Kenichi Masuda, Team Leader

Image of Kenichi Masuda

Vaccine Innovation Laboratory, RIKEN Baton Zone Program

Could you describe you COVID-19 project?

We are aiming to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, using a novel approach to vaccine design.

What led you to undertake this project?

We chose a novel approach to vaccine design because in the past there have been viruses against which no conventional vaccine could be developed. The reasons for this are usually because the virus mutates and the vaccine loses its effectiveness, or because the vaccine actually increases the susceptibility to viral infection as a side effect. There is a lot of expertise in immunology at RIKEN, which we have been taking advantage of to create a vaccine that will not have either of these problems.

What techniques are you using in your research?

Rather than the conventional approach of using the whole virus or virus proteins as the target for a vaccine, we searched for a conserved part of the virus protein to use, which would be less likely to mutate. We then created a unique vaccine that specifically targets our chosen part of the virus. Our vaccine induces the immune system to make antibodies against our chosen part of the virus, and these induced antibodies should not enhance the susceptibility to viral infection.

How is the project proceeding?

Our project is proceeding well, as we have already shown that our vaccine can induce antibodies in mice as predicted. Additionally, we have also tested our vaccine in cats, and have seen similar antibody production by their immune system.

What are your next steps?

Because our vaccine induces antibodies against a conserved target–present in all coronaviruses and one which is unlikely to mutate–we are hoping that our vaccine will be effective not only against SARS-CoV-2, but also against other coronaviruses endemic in animals. Our ultimate goal is to be able to prevent the zoonotic spread of viruses from animals to humans, and reduce the chance that the world becomes subjected to another [corona]virus pandemic in the future.

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