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Bristol university spin-out set to start Covid-19 vaccine trials

Pre-clinical trials expected to begin ‘within weeks’ as team rapidly identifies vaccine candidates

A spin-out from the University of Bristol has used its novel technology platform to develop vaccine candidates against Covid-19 that it intends to start testing “within weeks”.

Imophoron, which is based at the Unit DX Incubator in Bristol, has teamed up with the University of Bristol’s Covid-19 Emergency Research Group, to test their vaccine candidates in pre-clinical studies.

This is one of only three UK-based Covid-19 vaccines in clinical or pre-clinical evaluation, according to the World Health Organization’s 11 April paper, which identified a worldwide pipeline of 70 candidate vaccines. The other two UK-based projects the WHO lists are at Oxford and Imperial.

By inserting harmless bits of the viral surface proteins into their platform, called the ADDomer, the Bristol team creates synthetic virus-like particles that mimic coronavirus.

“We believe the approach has a number of potential advantages,” said Adam Finn, director of the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre at Bristol Medical School and co-ordinator of Bristol’s emergency research group.

For example, vaccines based on this technology are likely to require no refrigeration, which could make it easier to ship them globally. They could also be safer than the alternatives, with fewer side-effects, the team said.

Imre Berger, co-founder at Imophoron and director of the university’s Max Planck-Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, said that the Covid-19 virus infects cells using its so-called ‘Spike’ protein.

“Most Covid-19 vaccines now being fast-tracked present the complete Spike to the immune system, which reacts by making antibodies. This approach risks inducing antibodies that bind to the wrong parts of the Spike and could make the disease even worse,” she said.

“Imophoron’s vaccines, in contrast, present only very specific parts of the Spike essential for cell entry and are potentially much less prone to this risk.”

Berger said the next steps are “animal immunisation and virus neutralisation experiments” before moving into trials “as soon as possible”.

“We have optimised our process and can now design and roll out potential vaccines in about two weeks, ready for testing,” added Frederic Garzoni, co-founder and CEO of Imophoron. “With our technology, we hope to contribute to resolving the major health and economic threats caused by emerging viruses such as Covid-19.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Gilbert from the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, said on 11 April that her team’s vaccine could be ready for roll-out by September if all goes well. They are already recruiting volunteers to take part in a trial.

Matthew Duchars, CEO of the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, in Oxford, which is part of a consortium collaborating with Jenner to rapidly develop and produce a vaccine, said: “Our team are working around the clock to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to support scale up and manufacture of the vaccine, in the shortest possible time frame.”

Several experts have said that having the manufacturing capability in place early will be crucial.

David Salisbury, associate fellow of the Centre on Global Health Security at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House, said that making sufficient doses will require “industrial-scale manufacturing that governments do not have”.

“It is also worth remembering that too often the bottlenecks for vaccine production are at the last stages—batch testing, freeze drying, filling and finishing: again, capacities that governments do not have,” he said.

Colin Butter, associate professor at the University of Lincoln, said: “The commitment by government to ensure that the vaccine is being produced ahead of the final results of clinical trials will be critical to an early roll out of the vaccine in the UK.”