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How Cancer Immunotherapy is Helping Speed a COVID-19 Vaccine

November 17, 2020

As new cases of coronavirus infection continue to rise across the U.S. and around the world, many are asking when a vaccine to protect against infection will become widely available.

While no one can predict this with certainty as vaccines development can take years, a variety of approaches are already being tested in clinical trials. Many of these are leveraging recent advances in cancer immunotherapy in order to produce an effective vaccine as fast as possible.

Generally, all vaccines work in the same way, whether they target bacteria, cancer, or viruses like the one responsible for our current pandemic.

“Vaccines mimic a threat and train the body’s immune system to attack it,” said Susan Klaeger, Ph.D., a CRI postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she is working to improve vaccine development technologies.

“This is achieved by including a part of the target, known as an antigen, which is able to react with the immune cells. This also results in memory T cells as well as antibodies and antibody-producing B cells, which together can neutralize the threat and protect us should it ever appear again.” 

Information about these antigens can be encoded in several ways, including as DNA, RNA, or even protein fragments, which Klaeger noted, “allows for faster development and production as we don’t need to grow a lot of virus.”

In the lab of renowned cancer vaccine specialist Cathy Wu, M.D., Klaeger is optimizing a method to identify which antigens make the best targets for vaccines. Already, her strategy has provided a two-fold improvement in her team’s ability to predict whether given antigens are properly “presented” to T cells, a key part of our immune system. Though primarily focused on cancer, Klaeger’s work also can be applied to vaccines against viruses like SARA-CoV-2.

Scientists, companies, regulators, and others are working with urgency to shorten the time it takes to develop an effective vaccine to prevent coronavirus infection. Meanwhile, cancer immunotherapy research is also helping advance treatments for patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.  

It has become clearer now more than ever just how important scientific research is. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Carl H. June M.D., noted during CRI’s recent COVID-19 live stream event, “Now is our opportunity to tell the public why they need science. We need to spend more time educating them about its benefits.”

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*Immunotherapy results may vary from patient to patient.

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