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Cambridge University Science Magazine
The UK government has awarded £1.9 million in funding to run clinical trials on a promising SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate designed by the Cambridge-based company DIOSynVax. The award will allow the vaccine candidate - known as DIOS-CoVax2 - to undergo Phase I clinical trials at the University Hospital Southampton as early as Autumn this year.

Like many vaccines, DIOS-CoVax2 aims to expose the body to antigens (products from disease-causing organisms) to build an immunological memory against SARS-CoV-2 and related coronaviruses. However, choosing which antigen to use in a vaccine can be an expensive and time-consuming process. To expedite the antigen selection process, DIOS-CoVax2 was identified using a computational modelling approach by DIOSynVax.  By creating libraries of potential antigenic structures informed by a repository of genetic information of all known coronaviruses, the company was able to home in on potential vaccine candidates.

Professor Jonathan Heeney, founder of DIOSynVax – a spin off company from the University of Cambridge - explains that a vaccine candidate should not only be protective against SARS-Cov-2 and similar coronaviruses, but must also expose the body only to antigens which are safe for the body to receive, something that the DIOSynVax workflow tries to ensure. “Our strategy includes targeting those domains of the virus’s structure that are absolutely critical for docking with a cell, while avoiding the parts that could make things worse. What we end up with is a mimic, a synthetic part of the virus minus those non-essential elements that could trigger a bad immune response”, Professor Heeney says.

DIOS-CoVax2 vaccine also uses a unique method of introducing antigens to the body. Administered via needle-less air jet delivery into the skin, the vaccine comprises DNA encoding the antigen, which is then decoded and used by immune cells to raise an immune response. The use of synthetic DNA vectors over traditional RNA and adenovirus-based vaccines allows maximum design flexibility as well as being compatible with other vaccine delivery systems, Furthermore, freeze-drying of the DNA-based vaccine also means that it can be transported and stored easily without the need for refrigeration.

As this Cambridge-based vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 enters the start of a series of clinical trials made possible by this £1.9 million award, eyes will be on the DIOS-CoVax2 as a hopeful vaccine candidate in the fight against COVID-19.

Ruby Coates is a PhD student in microbiology and podcast co-host and editor at BlueSci