Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
It’s truly encouraging to witness people all across our nation rolling up their sleeves to get their COVID-19 vaccines. That is our best chance to end this pandemic. But this is the third coronavirus to emerge and cause serious human illness in the last 20 years, and it’s probably not the last. So, this is also an opportunity to step up our efforts to develop vaccines to combat future strains of disease-causing coronavirus. With this in mind, I’m heartened by a new NIH-funded study showing the potential of a remarkably adaptable, nanoparticle-based approach to coronavirus vaccine development .
Both COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for human use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) work by using mRNA to instruct our cells to make an essential portion of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, which is the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As our immune system learns to recognize this protein fragment as foreign, it produces antibodies to attack SARS-CoV-2 and prevent COVID-19. What makes the new vaccine technology so powerful is that it raises the possibility of training the immune system to recognize not just one strain of coronavirus—but up to eight—with a single shot.
This approach has not yet been tested in people, but when a research team, led by Pamela Bjorkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, injected this new type of vaccine into mice, it spurred the production of antibodies that react to a variety of different coronaviruses. In fact, some of the mouse antibodies proved to be reactive to related strains of coronavirus that weren’t even represented in the vaccine. These findings suggest that if presented with multiple different fragments of the spike protein’s receptor binding domain (RBD), which is what SARS-like coronaviruses use to infect human cells, the immune system may learn to recognize common features that might protect against as-yet unknown, newly emerging coronaviruses.
This new work, published in the journal Science, utilizes a technology called a mosaic nanoparticle vaccine platform . Originally developed by collaborators at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, the nanoparticle component of the platform is a “cage” made up of 60 identical proteins. Each of those proteins has a small protein tag that functions much like a piece of Velcro®. In their SARS-CoV-2 work, Bjorkman and her colleagues, including graduate student Alex A. Cohen, engineered multiple different fragments of the spike protein so each had its own Velcro-like tag. When mixed with the nanoparticle, the spike protein fragments stuck to the cage, resulting in a vaccine nanoparticle with spikes representing four to eight distinct coronavirus strains on its surface. In this instance, the researchers chose spike protein fragments from several different strains of SARS-CoV-2, as well as from other related bat coronaviruses thought to pose a threat to humans.
The researchers then injected the vaccine nanoparticles into mice and the results were encouraging. After inoculation, the mice began producing antibodies that could neutralize many different strains of coronavirus. In fact, while more study is needed to understand the mechanisms, the antibodies responded to coronavirus strains that weren’t even represented on the mosaic nanoparticle. Importantly, this broad antibody response came without apparent loss in the antibodies’ ability to respond to any one particular coronavirus strain.
The findings raise the exciting possibility that this new vaccine technology could provide protection against many coronavirus strains with a single shot. Of course, far more study is needed to explore how well such vaccines work to protect animals against infection, and whether they will prove to be safe and effective in people. There will also be significant challenges in scaling up manufacturing. Our goal is not to replace the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines that scientists developed at such a remarkable pace over the last year, but to provide much-needed vaccine strategies and tools to respond swiftly to the emerging coronavirus strains of the future.
As we double down on efforts to combat COVID-19, we must also come to grips with the fact that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the first—and surely won’t be the last—novel coronavirus to cause disease in humans. With continued research and development of new technologies such as this one, the hope is that we will come out of this terrible pandemic better prepared for future infectious disease threats.
 Mosaic RBD nanoparticles elicit neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and zoonotic coronaviruses. Cohen AA, Gnanapragasam PNP, Lee YE, Hoffman PR, Ou S, Kakutani LM, Keeffe JR, Barnes CO, Nussenzweig MC, Bjorkman PJ. Science. 2021 Jan 12.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Bjorkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As this long year enters its final month, there is good reason to look ahead to 2021 with optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic will finally be contained. The Food and Drug Administration is now reviewing the clinical trial data of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to ensure their safety and efficacy. If all goes well, emergency use authorization could come very soon, allowing immunizations to begin.
Work also continues on developing better therapeutics against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Though we’ve learned a great deal about this coronavirus in a short time, structural biologists continue to produce more detailed images that reveal more precisely where and how to target SARS-CoV-2. This research often involves neutralizing antibodies that circulate in the blood of most people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. The study of such antibodies and how they interact with SARS-CoV-2 offers critical biological clues into how to treat and prevent COVID-19.
A recent study in the journal Nature brings more progress, providing the most in-depth analysis yet of how human neutralizing antibodies physically grip SARS-CoV-2 to block it from binding to our cells . To conduct this analysis, a team of NIH-supported structural biologists, led by postdoc Christopher Barnes and Pamela Björkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, used the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to capture complex molecular interactions at near-atomic scale.
People infected with SARS-CoV-2 (or any foreign substance, for that matter) generate thousands of different versions of attack antibodies. Some of these antibodies are very good at sticking to the coronavirus, while others attach only loosely. Barnes used cryo-EM to capture highly intricate pictures of eight different human neutralizing antibodies bound tightly to SARS-CoV-2. Each of these antibodies, which had been isolated from patients a few weeks after they developed symptoms of COVID-19, had been shown in lab tests to be highly effective at blocking infection.
The researchers mapped all physical interactions between several human neutralizing antibodies and SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein that stud its surface. The virus uses these spiky extensions to infect a human cell by grabbing on to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor. The molecular encounter between the coronavirus and ACE2 takes place via one or more of a trio of three protein domains, called receptor-binding domains (RBDs), that jut out from its spikes. RBDs flap up and down in the fluid surrounding cells, “reaching up” to touch and enter, or “laying down” to hide from an infected person’s antibodies and immune cells. Only an “up” RBD can attach to ACE2 and get into a cell.
Taken together with other structural information known about SARS-CoV-2, Barnes’ cryo-EM snapshots revealed four different types of shapes, or classes, of antibody-spike combinations. These high-resolution molecular views show that human neutralizing antibodies interact in many different ways with SARS-CoV-2: blocking access to either one or more RBDs in their “up” or “down” positions.
These results tell us a number of things, including underscoring why strategies that combine multiple types of antibodies in an “antibody cocktail” might likely offer broader protection against infection than using just a single type of antibody. Indeed, that approach is currently being tested in patients with COVID-19.
The findings also provide a molecular guide for custom-designing synthetic antibodies in the lab to foil SARS-CoV-2. As one example, Barnes and his team observed that one antibody completely locked all three RBDs into closed (“down”) positions. As you might imagine, scientists might want to copy that antibody type when designing an antibody-based drug or vaccine.
It is tragic that hundreds of thousands of people have died from this terrible new disease. Yet the immune system helps most to recover. Learning as much as we possibly can from those individuals who’ve been infected and returned to health should help us understand how to heal others who develop COVID-19, as well as inform precision design of additional vaccines that are molecularly targeted to this new foe.
While we look forward to the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and their broad distribution in 2021, each of us needs to remember to practice the three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often. In parallel with everyone adopting these critical public health measures, the scientific community is working harder than ever to meet this moment, doing everything possible to develop safe and effective ways of treating and preventing COVID-19.
 SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibody structures inform therapeutic strategies. Barnes CO, Jette CA, Abernathy ME, et al. Nature. 2020 Oct 12. [Epub ahead of print].
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
Freezing a Moment in Time: Snapshots of Cryo-EM Research (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
Björkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases