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Trials launched for revolutionary, needle-free coronavirus vaccine

Published: 31 May 2023

Trials have begun for an innovative coronavirus vaccine that could vastly increase access to vaccination in the developing world.

The DIOSynVax vaccine has been developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and is being tested at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility and the NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility using cutting edge technology. It can be manufactured as a powder and delivered by air-jet technology, rather than a needle.

How does the vaccine work?

The vaccine is envisaged as a booster targeting SARS-CoV-2 and related coronaviruses.

SARS-CoV-2 uses ‘spike’ proteins on its surface to gain entry to host cells. After vaccination, the immune system can recognise the spike protein and block or destroy the virus.

Licensed COVID-19 vaccines were developed using a spike protein sequence from an early Wuhan patient in January 2020. But as the virus has evolved, its spike protein has mutated with each wave of variants. This makes it harder for the immune system to recognise the virus.

The new DIOSynVax vaccine was not designed around a sequence that has occurred in the past. Instead Cambridge researchers have:

  • used computers to predict changes in the virus
  • reviewed parts of the virus which are the same across different coronaviruses (including in animals)
  • used synthetic gene technology - in this case, DNA

Researchers hope the vaccine will provide long-lasting protection from a range of SARS-related coronaviruses.

DNA is the key

Because the basis of the vaccine is DNA, it can be manufactured and stabilised in powder form. This means it can be delivered to locations that do not have reliable cold-chain storage, such as in low and middle income countries. It is hoped the vaccine will boost global vaccination and enable vaccine equity.

The use of DNA also enables delivery through needle-free devices. These target the immune cell population under the skin using air pressure.

What is the stage of development?

Safety trials have already begun at the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility. They have now expanded to Cambridge. Volunteers are being vaccinated at NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility.

Professor Jonathan Heeney, who developed the vaccine, said: “The current trial is at a crucial stage of development, and is the first step of taking this technology further towards what we hope will eventually become a universal coronavirus vaccine.”

Professor Saul Faust, Director of the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility, said: “It is critical that different vaccine technologies are tested as part of the UK and global response to the pandemic because at this stage no one can be sure which type of vaccine will produce the best and most long-lived immune responses.

“It is especially exciting that the clinical trial will test giving the vaccine through people’s skin using a device without any needles. Together with stable DNA vaccine technology this could be a major breakthrough in being able to give a future vaccine to huge numbers of people across the world.”

Watch a short film about the vaccine trials

(Photo credit: Lloyd Mann)

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