San Diego Lab's Potential Coronavirus Vaccine Could Help Beyond Outbreak
Brewing a DNA-based vaccine smells kind of like a college bar.
The scent of stale beer that lingers inside the second-floor lab at Inovio Pharmaceuticals comes from E. coli bacteria that grows the DNA medicine many times over and is later extracted.
Inovio research associate Joseph Fader likened the whole process to harvesting crops.
"Say your favorite fruit is strawberries, right? You like strawberries but you don’t like eating the plant, but you need the plant to grow the strawberries — so the E. coli cells are the plant," Fader said.
And Inovio is trying to grow life-saving strawberries amid a raging storm.
As the deadly coronavirus known as COVID-19 is battering cities around the globe, including in the U.S., the company is racing to offer the world a life raft with its DNA-based vaccine. The process is faster, easier and doesn't use the virus at all, contrary to traditional immunizations, which typically include a weakened or inactive pathogen. But no DNA-based vaccine has received regulatory approval for broad public use. Inovio researchers hope their coronavirus anecdote breaks that barrier and, in turn, could revolutionize vaccine development.
President Donald Trump is urging companies to fast-track vaccine development and invited Inovio to a Monday meeting of the coronavirus task force at the White House.
"Inovio is the leader in coronavirus vaccine development in the world," Kim said to the president, noting the MERS product is in the second phase of human testing.
At the center of Inovio's COVID-19 vaccine operation in San Diego is senior vice president of research and development Kate Broderick. The lead researcher sometimes begins workdays at 2 a.m. to coordinate with colleagues across time zones and drive the mission forward at a near-record pace.
Broderick said the firm has made progress just weeks after the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an international public-private group based in Norway, asked the pharmaceutical company to join the coronavirus vaccine race in January.
"We have now started testing the vaccine in the lab and we are extremely encouraged by the data that we've generated thus far, and it's looking really very promising," she said.
Success in a tray or mandated animal testing, however, doesn't always mean a vaccine will prevent disease in humans. Inovio’s other vaccines have shown positive results in the first two human trials that evaluate for safety and efficacy and has two products in the third and final round of testing, when a vaccine is administered to thousands of individuals and compared to existing products. Yet no DNA-based vaccine has cleared that last hurdle and received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Broderick, who finds balance with morning yoga and an evening glass of wine, said Inovio's vaccines haven't been put to the third-round test yet but is confident they'll succeed. If Inovio does navigate those uncharted waters, it’ll generate a master vaccine that can be quickly modified with the DNA of the next virus that emerges.
"Just that tiny little piece of genetic information differs," Broderick said. "Every time we make progress on developing a vaccine like this, we can add that learning to the next outbreak or the next virus that we tackle."
For its Zika vaccine, which is in the second round of human testing, Inovio reached the first stage in only seven months. Broderick said the lab is applying lessons learned from that experience and is hoping to begin human testing on its coronavirus vaccine within only five months, by June.
At the White House meeting, CEO Kim told the president that could occur as early as April.
Getting there requires FDA approval. Inovio director of pre-clinical development Stephanie Ramos is helping to write and submit the thousands of required pages of results, studies and summaries.
Ramos said the process is expedited under the outbreak circumstance, so that means a lot of overtime and Indian take out, but the routine news coverage of the coronavirus impact reminds the researchers what they’re up against.
"It makes you feel good you’re doing your part to get the vaccine out there faster," Ramos said.
She's approaching this not just as a scientist — a handmade Mother’s Day gift sits on her desk.
"We do take to heart what is going into people," she said. "You know, we're not just here to say, 'Check. Yeah, did our job. Check. Yeah, we did it first.' No, that's the cherry on top."
Another company recently announced its experimentally designed vaccine for coronavirus is ready for the first stage of human trials. Inovio is still working toward that milestone but achieving successful results will be the bigger deal — not only for this virus but for the next one that scientists know is coming, but aren’t sure when or where.