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MTU researcher: New COVID-19 vaccine method promising

Photo provided by the Heldt Lab A tube artificially dyed to show the phases in an aqueous solution for viral separation shows a polymer phase in red and a clear salt phase.

HOUGHTON — One of the contenders in the race to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus uses a technique not found in conventional vaccines, said a Michigan Technological University researcher. 

Caryn Heldt, director of the Health Research Institute and a James and Lorna Mack Chair in Bioengineering, is researching vaccine purification techniques. 

The vaccines used in most situations take three forms: Live-attenuated use strains of the virus that are less infectious to humans. Inactivated vaccines use pathogens that have been killed after being grown. Subunit vaccines use specific pieces of the virus, which the vaccine then targets. 

“The closer we are to the natural virus, the better immune response we get,” Heldt said. 

A vaccine being tested by biotech firm Moderna uses a new technique using synthetic messenger RNA. The genetic sequence of the spike protein of the coronavirus is inserted into a cell, which then begins to make that protein. If all goes well, that would lead the body to create antibodies to ward off an infection. 

“You’re not going to get the disease, because the rest of the infection is not taking place,” Heldt said. 

Moderna announced Friday it hopes to begin producing the vaccine as early as July. 

Testing for the vaccine began its first phase in March, with injections in Washington state and a clinical trial in Georgia. The first phase is only used to measure its safety for humans at different doses, and to judge how well people can create antibodies in response, Heldt said. 

The second phase, which involves human trials to see if it works, takes longer, Heldt said. Because ethics rules for research bar giving someone the disease in a clinical trial, vaccines are given to people in groups such as health care workers who have had a high chance of being exposed. 

Moderna submitted an application last week to the Food and Drug Administration to move to a second phase of the trials. 

Heldt thinks the new vaccine is promising. She tied it into her work with continuous manufacturing of vaccines.

“What is great about these vaccines is they have the potential to then change strains, just a spike protein of a completely different virus,” she said. “You’d use the same manufacturing process, so it’d be really easy to produce vaccines and manufacture them in large quantities.”

Having no trace of the original virus also has advantages. 

“They’re good at provoking the immune response, but they can do absolutely nothing to cause the disease, so they’re extremely safe,” Heldt said.

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