Novel Technologies Could Make Coronavirus Vaccines More Stable for Worldwide Shipping
Ssendi Bosco has long known to fear the rainy season. As deputy health officer of Mubende District, a region in Central Uganda, she is only too aware of the threat that heavy storms can pose to her area's fragile healthcare facilities.
In early October, persistent rain overwhelmed the power generator that supplies electricity to most of the region, causing a blackout for three weeks. The result was that most of Mubende's vaccine supplies against diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and polio went to waste. "The vaccines need to be constantly refrigerated, so the generator failing means that most of them are now unusable," she says.
This week, the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic received a major boost when Pfizer and their German partner BioNTech released interim results showing that their vaccine has proved more than 90 percent effective at preventing participants in their clinical trial from getting COVID-19.
But while Pfizer has already signed deals to supply the vaccine to the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan and the European Union, Mubende's recent plight provides an indication of the challenges that distributors will face when attempting to ship a coronavirus vaccine around the globe, particularly to low-income nations.
Experts have estimated that somewhere between 12 billion and 15 billion doses will be needed to immunize the world's population against COVID-19, a staggering scale, and one that has never been attempted before. "The logistics of distributing COVID-19 vaccines have been described as one of the biggest challenges in the history of mankind," says Göran Conradson, managing director of Swedish vaccine manufacturer Ziccum.
But even these estimates do not take into account the potential for vaccine spoilage. Every year, the World Health Organization estimates that over half of the world's vaccines end up being wasted. This happens because vaccines are fragile products. From the moment they are made, to the moment they are administered, they have to be kept within a tightly controlled temperature range. Throughout the entire supply chain – transportation to an airport, the flight to another country, unloaded, distribution via trucks to healthcare facilities, and storage – they must be refrigerated at all times. This is known as the cold chain, and one tiny slip along the way means the vaccines are ruined.
"It's a chain, and any chain is only as strong as its weakest link," says Asel Sartbaeva, a chemist working on vaccine technologies at the University of Bath in the U.K.
For COVID-19, the challenge is even greater because some of the leading vaccine candidates need to be kept at ultracold temperatures. Pfizer's vaccine, for example, must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, the kind of freezer capabilities rarely found outsides of specialized laboratories. Transporting such a vaccine across North America and Europe will be difficult enough, but supplying it to some of the world's poorest nations in Asia, Africa and South America -- where only 10 percent of healthcare facilities have reliable electricity -- might appear virtually impossible.
But technology may be able to come to the rescue.
Making Vaccines Less Fragile
Just as the world's pharmaceutical companies have been racing against the clock to develop viable COVID-19 vaccine candidates, scientists around the globe have been hastily developing new technologies to try and make vaccines less fragile. Some approaches involve various chemicals that can be added to the vaccine to make them far more resilient to temperature fluctuations during transit, while others focus on insulated storage units that can maintain the vaccine at a certain temperature even if there is a power outage.
Some of these concepts have already been considered for several years, but before COVID-19 there was less of a commercial incentive to bring them to market. "We never felt that there is a need for an investment in this area," explains Sam Kosari, a pharmacist at the University of Canberra, who researches the vaccine cold chain. "Some technologies were developed then to assist with vaccine transport in Africa during Ebola, but since that outbreak was contained, there hasn't been any serious initiative or reward to develop this technology further."
In her laboratory at the University of Bath, Sartbaeva is using silica - the main constituent of sand – to encase the molecular components within a vaccine. Conventional vaccines typically contain protein targets from the virus, which the immune system learns to recognize. However, when they are exposed to temperature changes, these protein structures degrade, and lose their shape, making the vaccine useless. Sartbaeva compares this to how an egg changes its shape and consistency when it is boiled.
When silica is added to a vaccine, it molds to each protein, forming little protective cages around them, and thus preventing them from being affected by temperature changes. "The whole idea is that if we can create a shell around each protein, we can protect it from physically unravelling which is what causes the deactivation of the vaccine," she says.
Other scientists are exploring similar methods of making vaccines more resilient. Researchers at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford recently conducted a clinical trial in which they added carbohydrates to a dengue vaccine, to assess whether it became easier to transport.
Both research groups are now hoping to collaborate with the COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed by AstraZeneca and Imperial College, assuming they become available in 2021.
"It's good we're all working on this big problem, as different methods could work better for different types of COVID-19 vaccines," says Sartbaeva. "I think it will be needed."
Next-Generation Vaccine Technology
While these different technologies could be utilized to try and protect the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines, efforts are also underway to develop completely new methods of vaccination. Much of this research is still in its earliest stages, but it could yield a second generation of COVID-19 vaccine candidates in 2022 and beyond.
"After the first round of mass vaccination, we could well observe regional outbreaks of the disease appearing from time to time in the coming years," says Kosari. "This is the time where new types of vaccines could be helpful."
One novel method being explored by Ziccum and others is dry powder vaccines. The idea is to spray dry the final vaccine into a powder form, where it is more easily preserved and does not require any special cooling while being transported or stored. People then receive the vaccine by inhaling it, rather than having it injected into their bloodstream.
Conradson explains that the concept of dry powder vaccines works on the same principle as dried food products. Because there is no water involved, the vaccine's components are far less affected by temperature changes. "It is actually the water that leads to the destruction of potency of a vaccine when it gets heated," he says. "We're looking to develop a dry powder vaccine for COVID-19 but this will be a second-generation vaccine. At the moment there are more than 200 first-generation candidates, all of which are using conventional technologies due to the timeframe pressures, which I think was the correct decision."
Dry powder COVID-19 vaccines could also be combined with microneedle patches, to allow people to self-administer the vaccine themselves in their own home. Microneedles are miniature needles – measured in millionths of a meter – which are designed to deliver medicines through the skin with minimal pain. So far, they have been used mainly in cosmetic products, but many scientists are working to use them to deliver drugs or vaccines.
At Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Mark Prausnitz is leading a couple of projects looking at incorporating COVID-19 vaccines into microneedle patches with the hope of running some early-stage clinical trials over the next couple of years. "The advantage is that they maintain the vaccine in a stable, dry state until it dissolves in the skin," he explains.
Prausnitz and others believe that once the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines become available, biotech and pharmaceutical companies will show more interest in adapting their products so they can be used in a dried form or with a microneedle patch. "There is so much pressure to get the COVID vaccine out that right now, vaccine developers are not interested in incorporating a novel delivery method," he says. "That will have to come later, once the pressure is lessened."
The Struggle of Low-Income Nations
For low-income nations, time will only tell whether technological advancements can enable them to access the first wave of licensed COVID-19 vaccines. But reports already suggest that they are in danger of becoming an afterthought in the race to procure vaccine supplies.
While initiatives such as COVAX are attempting to make sure that vaccine access is equitable, high and middle-income countries have already inked deals to secure 3.8 billion doses, with options for another 5 billion. One particularly sobering study by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center has suggested that such hoarding means many low-income nations may not receive a vaccine until 2024.
For Bosco and the residents of Mubende District in Uganda, all they can do is wait. In the meantime, there is a more pressing problem: fixing their generators. "We hope that we can receive a vaccine," she says. "But the biggest problem will be finding ways to safely store it. Right now we cannot keep any medicines or vaccines in the conditions they need, because we don't have the funds to repair our power generators."
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”