Gene Technology in the Fight Against COVID-19
If you think advancements in gene technology are only for rare diseases or are relegated to the future, think again. In our gene therapy series, we discussed the impact of gene therapy and gene editing on biopharmaceutical’s (biopharma) approach to disease treatment and the ensuing disruption to the healthcare industry. These innovative solutions are helping to drive seismic shifts across the healthcare landscape. As profound as these long-term thematic trends and corresponding investment opportunities are, the technologies involved are also potential solutions for immediate global challenges facing society today. This is no more prevalent than in the fight against COVID-19. A great deal of attention and hope is being placed in vaccines. Multiple vaccines are currently in development, and there are two very prominent examples that are utilizing gene technology. Simply put, the biopharma industry has reached into its “gene technology toolbox”, and in record time, has moved into phase three clinical trials with potential vaccines available as soon as early 2021, if successful.
- Viral Vector Vaccines. Viral vectors are used to deliver genetic material into cells. There are many, but the two most prominent are from a leading university and pharmaceutical company and a Chinese biologics company. Both are in the late stages of development for a COVID-19 vaccine. This approach delivers the genetic code (DNA) for the spike protein of COVID-19 via a common cold virus capsule that shuttles the genetic code into the cells of the person receiving the vaccine. The person’s cells then use the DNA delivered by the common cold virus to create the spike protein (the antigen). Once the antigen forms, the immune system identifies the unfamiliar spike proteins and begins developing antibodies against it, as well as a T-Cell response. The hope is that the immune system will remember the newly created antibodies and prevent real infections from occurring down the road. The vaccine is non-infective because it is not injecting the real COVID-19 virus. It is instead injecting the “instructions” that create the spike protein, which sits on the outer surface of every real COVID-19 virus capsid. This is precisely how gene therapy works – it delivers DNA via a virus to make proteins to cure a disease. The hopeful outcome is immune readiness to attack the virus if the patient is exposed in the future.
- mRNA Vaccines. Currently, the most popular vaccine approach is one pioneered by an American biotechnology company – messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics. This approach delivers mRNA of the spike protein inside a liquid nanoparticle (similar to the previously described process but utilizing a different vehicle to transfer the genetic material). The mRNA is delivered to the person’s cells, which then use the mRNA to make the spike protein. Similar to the viral vector approach, the aim is to elicit an immune response. For reference, mRNA is further downstream in interpreting the instructions from the master plan – your DNA. It seeks to accomplish the same result (i.e., a lasting immune response), but begins at a different stage than viral vector vaccines, which begin at the DNA level.
How do biologists obtain the codes for the spike protein, either in DNA or mRNA form, to shuttle into human cells? The answer is Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). This explosive technology has been changing the world for more than a decade and is a critical technology to companies we label as the “supporting cast” in the world of Smart Cures. We continue to engage with Smart Cures companies to understand how they are utilizing these powerful technologies to improve disease detection and treatment and uncover the opportunities that could emerge with the advancement of these technologies.
As with all viruses, another key consideration for COVID-19 is the mutation of the disease. What happens if the DNA codes used to create the vaccine begin to mutate? Thanks to NGS, scientists will have the rapid sequence tools to chart changes in real time to rapidly tailor new therapies and vaccines. As evidenced here, gene technology is in action today, shaping modern medicine and potentially saving us from a novel virus.
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