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Researchers working to develop needle-free delivery of COVID-19 vaccine

Researchers look to deliver DNA-based vaccine to lower respiratory tract through ‘synthetic infection’
School of Pharmacy
File photo of UW School of Pharmacy. Blair Adams/KitchenerToday

As the Region sees its first deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine, long term care workers prepare to roll up their sleeves to take their shots in the first wave of our vaccine roll-out. While the intramuscular approach may be the most common and proven route of administration, researchers at the University of Waterloo are now in the pre-clinical stages of development in a nasal spray DNA-based vaccine, aiming to use a system of ‘synthetic infection’ to safely generate immune response.

Roderick Slavcev is an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy, and one of the researchers behind the complex project. Speaking to the benefits of delivering a COVID-19 vaccine intranasally, Slavcev said there are plenty – besides the obvious non-invasive nature of being needle-free. Slavcev said an intranasal approach can target “important immune tissue” in the nasal passage important for the presentation of viral antigens.

“In the system we call synthetic infection (…) is that we want to be able to target the DNA to specific cells of the lower respiratory tract just like you would see for a SARS-CoV-2 infection and be able to mimic this infection in a very safe way…” said Slavcev. “We are targeting all the appropriate type of immune tissue and generating the right and most appropriate type of an immune response.”

When asked about the hurdles associated with developing a vaccine option associated with this method of delivery, Slavcev said the most important limitation comes in how universal or standardized the approach can be – as a recipient being congested could limit the amount of material reaching the right types of tissue.

“Making sure we’re getting the right or more standardized approach to what dosing could be is an important consideration with this – I would say, likely, the most important…” said Slavcev. “It wouldn’t necessarily be entirely standardized, but we have to try to maximize the approach such that it can be as standardized as possible across the entire population.”

Prior to working on this project, Slavcev said he and his colleagues had been working on therapeutic platforms. He said when COVID-19 struck, they realized that by combining their various therapeutic processes they’ve been able to generate a new type of vaccine and put new types of application to work. Slavcev said he’s been working closely with two colleagues from UW - Dr. Marc Aucoin and Dr. Emmanuel Ho, as well as Mediphage Bioceuticals out of Toronto.

“To put it simply, we’re trying to mimic an actual viral infection by virtue of putting together viral components that simulate what a virus might look like and how it might infect the cell without any potential of propagation or replication of the virus – and also ensuring the nucleic acids that we use are used in the safest manner possible – that’s where Mediphage Bioceuticals comes in, using their proprietary and extremely safe DNA technology.”

Slavcev said that right now we’re living through an “unprecedented time” in terms of the absolute focus on different types of vaccine approaches, creating a huge number of “new paradigms” by which you can administer and apply new types of vaccine strategies. He also praised the level of collaboration that’s been seen between research groups to quickly move toward addressing the global pandemic.

“… those strategies don’t just have impacts for COVID-19 / SARS-CoV-2 but perhaps even more importantly for how we can address future infections…” said Slavcev. “Even with Pfizer and Moderna – their approach of a nucleic acid being put forward as a new type of vaccines is a novel approach, and not conventional for how we’ve actually looked at vaccines in the past.”

“There are a variety of new paradigms – which includes our own – which we believe will have great impact on how we’re combating infectious disease in the future.”

Slavcev said the intranasal vaccine will hopefully be finished with the pre-clinical stage of development in the next few months, hoping to prove out the concept behind the approach of synthetic infection. If found viable, he said they’d be hoping to move to clinical trials shortly after.

“When you’re looking at a type of an infection that is of the respiratory tract – trying to stimulate the respiratory mucosal immune response is a very important component to how we can address this type of an infection…” said Slavcev. “What is sort of a growing area of research is trying to mimic the actual routes of infection and using those as the actual routes of administration – it’s perhaps a very viable approach for how future vaccines may work.”



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