HIV Vaccine Uses mRNA technology

An experimental HIV vaccine that uses the same technology as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer is showing promising results in both monkeys and mice. A press release from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) explained that monkeys who received a multiple doses of the experimental vaccine had their chances of contracting an HIV-like virus lowered by 79%.

Scientists have spent decades struggling to create an HIV vaccine due to the speed at which the virus mutates and its remarkable ability to evade the immune system. Dr. Anthony Fauci, president of NIAID, leader of the United States’ battle against COVID-19, and a co-author of this HIV vaccine study published in Nature Medicine, expressed optimism about the progress made by the mRNA technology.

Despite nearly four decades of effort by the global research community, an effective vaccine to prevent HIV remains an elusive goal,” Fauci said. “This experimental mRNA vaccine combines several features that may overcome shortcomings of other experimental HIV vaccines and thus represents a promising approach.”

The trial involved a series of booster shots in macaques over the course of an entire year. The authors explained that not only did the trial yield a positive immune response, but also that “the vaccine was well tolerated with only mild adverse events after each inoculation,” with the most common side effect being loss of appetite.

Now the researchers are working on refining the process so less rounds of shots are needed, as they noted in Nature Medicine that “a vaccination regimen encompassing seven or more sequential immunizations would be difficult to implement in humans.” The study’s leader Dr. Paolo Lusso, said that if the team is successful at reducing the number of boosters in a safe and effective way, they will then move on to a phase 1 trial of the vaccine in adult humans.


Synthetic Molecule Seeks out and Destroys Cancer Tumors

Activating the immune system at the site of a tumor can recruit and stimulate immune cells to destroy tumor cells. One strategy involves injecting immune-stimulating molecules directly into the tumor, but this method can be challenging for cancers that are not easily accessible.  Now, Stanford researchers have developed a new synthetic molecule that combines a tumor-targeting agent with another molecule that triggers immune activation. This tumor-targeted immunotherapy can be administered intravenously and makes its way to one or multiple tumor sites in the body, where it recruits immune cells to fight the cancer

Three doses of this new immunotherapy prolonged the survival of six of nine laboratory mice with an aggressive triple negative breast cancer. Of the six, three appeared cured of their cancer over the duration of the monthslong study. A single dose of this molecule induced complete tumor regression in five of 10 mice. The synthetic molecule showed similar results in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer.

We essentially cured some animals with just a few injections,” said Jennifer Cochran, PhD, the Shriram Chair of the Department of Bioengineering. “It was pretty astonishing. When we looked within the tumors, we saw they went from a highly immunosuppressive microenvironment to one full of activated B and T cells — similar to what happens when the immune-stimulating molecule is injected directly into the tumor. So, we’re achieving intra-tumoral injection results but with an IV delivery.”

A paper describing the study has been published online in Cell Chemical Biology. Cochran shares senior authorship with Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, the Baker Family Director of Stanford ChEM-H, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of chemistry; and Ronald Levy, MD, the Robert K. and Helen K. Summy Professor in the School of Medicine. The lead authors are graduate student Caitlyn Miller and instructor of medicine Idit Sagiv-Barfi, PhD.


How to Make Tumor Eliminate Itself

A new technology developed by University of Zurich (UZH) researchers in Switzerland enables the body to produce therapeutic agents on demand at the exact location where they are needed. The innovation could reduce the side effects of cancer therapy and may hold the solution to better delivery of Covid-related therapies directly to the lungs.

Scientists have modified a common respiratory virus, called adenovirus, to act like a Trojan horse to deliver genes for cancer therapeutics directly into tumor cells. Unlike chemotherapy or radiotherapy, this approach does no harm to normal healthy cells. Once inside tumor cells, the delivered genes serve as a blueprint for therapeutic antibodies, cytokines and other signaling substances, which are produced by the cancer cells themselves and act to eliminate tumors from the inside out.

Imaris Snapshot

View of the tumor from the inside. A piece of the tumor was made completely transparent and scanned in 3D with a special microscope. The components labeled with fluorescent colors were rendered in a rotatable 3D representation on the computer (red: blood vessels, turquoise: tumor cells, yellow: therapeutic antibody)

We trick the tumor into eliminating itself through the production of anti-cancer agents by its own cells,” says postdoctoral fellow Sheena Smith, who led the development of the delivery approach. Research group leader Andreas Plückthun explains: “The therapeutic agents, such as therapeutic antibodies or signaling substances, mostly stay at the place in the body where they’re needed instead of spreading throughout the bloodstream where they can damage healthy organs and tissues.”

The UZH researchers call their technology SHREAD: for SHielded, REtargetted ADenovirus. It builds on key technologies previously engineered by the Plückthun team, including to direct adenoviruses to specified parts of the body to hide them from the immune  system. With the SHREAD system, the scientists made the tumor itself produce a clinically approved breast cancer antibody, called trastuzumab (Herceptin®), in the mammary of a mouse. They found that, after a few days, SHREAD produced more of the antibody in the tumor than when the drug was injected directly. Moreover, the concentration in the bloodstream and in other tissues where side effects could occur were significantly lower with SHREAD. The scientists used a very sophisticated, high-resolution 3D imaging method and tissues rendered totally transparent to show how the therapeutic antibody, produced in the body, creates pores in blood vessels of the tumor and destroys tumor cells, and thus treats it from the inside.


A Forest-based Yard Im­proved the Im­mune Sys­tem of Day­care Chil­dren in Only a Month

Playing through the greenery and litter of a mini forest‘s undergrowth for just one month may be enough to change a child’s immune system, according to an experiment in Finland. When daycare workers rolled out a lawn, planted forest undergrowth (such as dwarf heather and blueberries), and allowed children to care for crops in planter boxes, the diversity of microbes in the guts and on the skin of young kids appeared healthier in a very short space of time.

Compared to other city kids who play in standard urban daycares with yards of pavement, tile and gravel, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds at these greened-up daycare centers in Finland showed increased T-cells and other important immune markers in their blood within 28 days.


We also found that the intestinal microbiota of children who received greenery was similar to the intestinal microbiota of children visiting the forest every day,” explained environmental scientist Marja Roslund from the University of Helsinki in 2020, when the research was published.

Prior research has shown early exposure to green space is somehow linked to a well-functioning immune system, but it’s still not clear whether that relationship is causal or not.

The experiment in Finland is the first to explicitly manipulate a child’s urban environment and then test for changes in their microbiome and, in turn, a child’s immune system.


How To Reverse Cell Aging

A team of scientists has found why elderly people are more susceptible to COVID-19 and are working to reverse the aging process of the body’s immune system.

Scientists from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology say they have found a way to rejuvenate the aging process of the body’s immune system. Prof. Doron Melamed and doctoral student Reem Dowery sought to understand why the elderly population is more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19 and why the vaccines seem to be less effective and wane faster among this population. The results of their work were published this month in the peer-reviewed, online medical journal Blood.
The secret begins with B cells, also known as B lymphocytes. These are the cells that produce antibodies against any pathogen that enters the body. They play a key role in protecting people from viruses and diseases.
B cells do not just disappear. They turn into “memoryB cells so that if the body is exposed to a previous pathogen, the individual will not get sick. That is because the immune response will be fast and robust, and it will eliminate the pathogen, often without the individual knowing he or she had been exposed to it.

Imagine you are growing into adulthood, and you become an adult and then an older person,” Melamed said. “You accumulate in your body many memory cells. You are exposed all the time to pathogens, and hence you make more and more memory cells. Because these are so long-lived, there is no room left for new B cells.
What happens when a new pathogen, such as the coronavirus, comes along? There are no young B cells that can recognize it. That is one of the reasons why older people are more susceptible to severe COVID-19 and many other diseases. As noted, this happens because of the body’s need for homeostasis, something that Melamed’s lab discovered a decade ago. But this year, they took the discovery another step and figured out a mechanism to override the system.
We found specific hormonal signals produced by the old B cells, the memory cells, that inhibit the bone marrow from producing new B cells,” Melamed said. “This is a huge discovery. It is like finding a needle in a haystack.”

It also means that, over time, specific drugs or treatments can be found to inhibit one of the hormones in the signaling pathway and get the bone marrow to produce new B cells.


How to Reverse Age-related Brain Deterioration

Research from APC Microbiome Ireland (APCSFI Research Centre at University College Cork (UCC) published in the journal Nature Aging introduces a novel approach to reverse aspects of aging-related deterioration in the brain and cognitive function via the microbes in the gut.

As our population ages one of the key global challenges is to develop strategies to maintain healthy brain function. This ground-breaking research opens up a potentially new therapeutic avenues in the form of microbial-based interventions to slow down brain aging and associated cognitive problems. The work was carried out by researchers in the Brain-Gut-Microbiota lab in APC led by Prof John F. Cryan, Vice President for Research & Innovation, University College Cork as well as a Principal Investigator at APC Microbiome Ireland an SFI Research Centre, based in in University College Cork and Teagasc Moorepark.

There is a growing appreciation of the importance of the microbes in the gut on all aspects of physiology and medicine. In this latest mouse study the authors show that by transplanting microbes from young into old animals they could rejuvenate aspects of brain and immune function.

Prof John F. Cryan, says “Previous research published by the APC and other groups internationally has shown that the gut microbiome plays a key role in aging and the aging process. This new research is a potential game changer , as we have established that the microbiome can be harnessed to reverse age-related brain deterioration. We also see evidence of improved learning ability and cognitive function”.

Although very exciting Cryan cautions that “it is still early days and much more work is needed to see how these findings could be translated in humans”.

APC Director Prof Paul Ross stated that “This research of Prof. Cryan and colleagues further demonstrates the importance of the gut microbiome in many aspects of health, and particularly across the brain/gut axis where brain functioning can be positively influenced. The study opens up possibilities in the future to modulate gut microbiota as a therapeutic target to influence brain health”.

The study was led by co-first authors Dr Marcus Boehme along with PhD student Katherine E. Guzzetta, and Dr Thomaz Bastiaanssen.


mRNA Vaccines will Soon Prevent Cancer

In the early 1990s, mRNA technology emerged as an alternative to traditional vaccine development, building on research conducted by Wolff et al. involving direct gene transfer into mouse muscle in vivo. Initially, mRNA technology came with drawbacks as it caused severe inflammation upon administration, degraded quickly in the body and was difficult to move across the membrane into the cell. However, breakthroughs using nanotechnology overcame some of these challenges; scientists encased the RNA and used synthetic RNA that the body’s immune system recognizes.

Other major technological innovation and research investment has improved the delivery, translation and stability, enabling mRNA to become a promising tool for vaccine development. These breakthroughs have allowed further research and development of mRNA vaccines, particularly against viruses such as HIV and influenza. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, several human clinical trials were underway to test mRNA vaccines against influenza and HIV. As a result of the pandemic, research efforts, funding and facilities prioritized the development of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. Combined efforts of global research teams working on COVID-19 mRNA vaccinations accelerated the field of research, improving the knowledge, understanding and methods of mRNA vaccine technology. This allowed the progression of mRNA vaccines for other diseases, such as cancer, and clinical trials for mRNA cancer vaccinations are now underway. The MD Anderson Cancer Center (TX, USA) is conducting a clinical trial to test whether mRNA technology can be used to prevent the recurrence of colorectal cancer.

A B cell displays antibodies specific to antigens on a colorectal cancer cell and signals killer T cells to destroy it.

People with colorectal cancer often undergo surgery to remove the cancerous tumor; however, cancer cells remain in the body and shed DNA into the bloodstream, which is known as circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and can cause further complications and metastasis. Van Morris and Scott Kopetz are leading the Phase II trial (NCT04486378) for a personalized mRNA cancer vaccine. People who have stage II or III colorectal cancer are given a blood test after their surgery to check for ctDNA. The patient’s tumor tissue is genetically profiled to identify mutations that fuel cancer growth. The tumor mutations are then ranked from the most to the least common to create a personalized mRNA vaccine for the patient. “We’re hopeful that with the personalized vaccine, we’re priming the immune system to go after the residual tumor cells, clear them out and cure the patient,” explains Morris.


mRNA Vaccine to Prevent Colorectal Cancer Recurrence

The COVID-19 vaccines mark the first widespread use of mRNA technology. They work by using synthetic genetic code to instruct the patient’s cells to recognize the coronavirus and activate the immune system against the virus. But researchers began exploring how to use mRNA vaccines as a new way to treat cancer long before this technology was used against the coronavirus.

A B-cell displaying antibodies created in response to foreign protein fragments produced from a personalized mRNA vaccine recognizes a colorectal cancer cell and signals killer T-cells to destroy it

We’ve known about this technology for a long time, well before COVID-19,” says Van Morris, M.D. Here, he explains how mRNA vaccines work and how a team of MD Anderson colorectal cancer experts led by Scott Kopetz, M.D., Ph.D., are testing the technology in a Phase II clinical trial, following high-risk patients with stage II or stage III colorectal cancer who test positive for circulating tumor DNA after surgery.

The presence of circulating tumor DNA is checked with a blood test. “If there is ctDNA present, it can mean that a patient is at higher risk for the cancer coming back,” Morris says. The opposite can also be true: if there is not circulating tumor DNA present, the patient may have a lower risk of recurrence, he adds.

In the Phase II clinical trial, enrolled patients start chemotherapy after the tumor is surgically removed. Tissue from the tumor is sent off to a specialized lab, where it’s tested to look for genetic mutations that fuel the cancer’s growth. Morris explains anywhere from five to 20 mutations specific to that patient’s tumor can be identified during testing. The mutations are then prioritized by the most common to the least common, and an mRNA vaccine is created based on that ranking. “Each patient on the trial receives a personalized mRNA vaccine based on their individual mutation test results from their tumor.

As with the COVID-19 vaccines, the mRNA instructs the patient’s cells to produce protein fragments based off tumor’s genetic mutations identified during testing. The immune system then searches for other cells with the mutated proteins and clears out any remaining circulating tumor cells.We’re hopeful that with the personalized vaccine, we’re priming the immune system to go after the residual tumor cells, clear them out and cure the patient,” says Morris.


Moderna to Trial HIV and Flu Vaccines With mRNA Technology

The astonishing success of COVID-19 vaccines may signal a breakthrough in disease prevention technologyModerna is developing influenza and HIV vaccines using mRNA technology, the backbone of its effective COVID-19 vaccine. The biotech company is expected to launch phase 1 trials for its mRNA flu and HIV vaccines this year. If successful, mRNA may offer a silver lining to the decades-long fight against HIV, influenza, and other autoimmune diseases. Traditional vaccines often introduce a weakened or inactive virus to one’s body. In contrast, mRNA technology uses genetic blueprints, which build proteins to train the immune system to fight off the virus. Since mRNA teaches the body to recognize a virus, it can be effective against multiple strains or variants as opposed to just one.

The mRNA platform makes it easy to develop vaccines against variants because it just requires an update to the coding sequences in the mRNA that code for the variant,”  said Rajesh Gandhi, MD, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and chair of HIV Medicine association.

Future mRNA vaccines have the potential to ward off multiple diseases with one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Current mRNA vaccines, as demonstrated in their use against COVID-19, already appear to be less susceptible to new variants. “Based on its success in protecting against COVID-19, I am hopeful that mRNA technology will revolutionize our ability to develop vaccines against other pathogens, like HIV and influenza,” Gandhi says.

Moderna’s flu and HIV vaccines are still in early development stages, having yet to undergo their clinical trials. Still, if they prove successful, the mRNA-based treatment could dramatically change health care — both in expediting the route to immunity and by providing a solution to illnesses that have been around for decades. Scientists currently make annual alterations to the typical flu shot to keep up with the viruses in circulation. But a successful mRNA vaccine could provide a far more effective alternative.

An approved mRNA flu vaccine could be administered every other year rather than annually, explained virologist Andrew Pekosz, PhD. This is because mRNA accounts for variants and produces a stronger and longer-lasting immune response than that of the current flu vaccine, he says. The influenza vaccine is similar to the COVID-19 vaccine because the viruses have similar characteristics and necessary treatments, according to Pekosz.

However, a potential concern lies in the level of public immunity prior to receiving a vaccine. Since the flu has been around since the early 1900s, an mRNA vaccine could potentially boost older or less effective antibody responses rather than targeting current strains, Pekosz adds. “There’s no way to answer that question except to do some clinical trials, and see what the results tell us”.


Holistic Immune Response Against Covid-19

Researchers say it’s the first real look at exactly what types of “red flags” the human body uses to enlist the help of T cells—killers the immune system sends out to destroy infected cells. Until now, COVID vaccines have focused on activating a different type of immune cell, B cells, which are responsible for creating antibodies. Developing vaccines to activate the other arm of the immune system—the T cells—could dramatically increase immunity against coronavirus, and importantly, its variants.

As reported in the journal Cell, the researchers say current vaccines might lack some important bits of viral material capable of triggering a holistic immune response in the human body.

Companies should reevaluate their vaccine designs,” says Mohsan Saeed, a virologist at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) and co-corresponding author of the paper.

Saeed, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the School of Medicine, performed experiments on human cells infected with coronavirus. He isolated and identified those missing pieces of SARS-CoV-2 proteins inside one of the NEIDL’s Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) labs.

This was a big undertaking because many research techniques are difficult to adapt for high containment levels [such as BSL-3],” Saeed says. “The overall coronavirus research pipeline we’ve created at the NEIDL, and the support of our entire NEIDL team, has helped us along the way.”

Saeed got involved when computational geneticists Pardis Sabeti and Shira Weingarten-Gabbay contacted him. They hoped to identify fragments of SARS-CoV-2 that activate the immune system’s T cells.

The emergence of viral variants, an active area of research in my lab, is a major concern for vaccine development,” says Sabeti, a leader in the Broad Institute’s Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program. She is also a Harvard University professor of systems biology.

We swung into full action right away because my laboratory had [already] generated human cell lines that could be readily infected with SARS-CoV-2,” Saeed says. The group’s efforts were spearheaded by two members of the Saeed lab: Da-Yuan Chen, a postdoctoral associate, and Hasahn Conway, a lab technician.