A team of Tel Aviv University academics has partnered with a Swiss company to find a vaccine against COVID-19, taking advantage of years of research that the Israeli scientists have devoted to the coronavirus family.
The agreement between TAU’s technology-transfer company Ramot and biopharmaceutical company Neovii, which is also a member of Israel-based Neopharm Group, was announced on Tuesday.
As explained to The Jerusalem Post by Prof. Jonathan Gershoni of TAU’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, the researchers have been focusing on coronaviruses since 2004, shortly after SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) emerged.
“Our area of study has been the interaction between viruses and the cells they infect,” he said. “When we think of the images of the coronavirus that appear so frequently in the media, we see a gray ball featuring many protrusions on the surface, giving the impression of a crown surrounding the virus.
“When we refer to the spikes, we refer to these protein branches. In the world of molecular biology, they are not so little. They are huge. We measure their size by the number of amino-acid units that form them, which is about 1,200. Of them, only a limited set in a restricted area within the spike serves to recognize the cell, and more specifically the receptor, a protein on the surface of the cell that the virus intends to infect,” Gershoni said.
He compared the process to a key (the set of amino acids in the spike) finding the lock (the specific protein receptor on the cell). The focus of their research has been to neutralize this interaction in the different strains of coronaviruses.
When Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) emerged a few years later in 2012, Gershoni said, they were pleased to realize that everything they had learned about the mechanism of entry and the construction of a functional receptor-binding motif in SARS could be applied and implemented in studying MERS.
The group started the process to patent their technology in 2015, and the patent was recently approved.
“We did not know that in another five years, a new coronavirus pandemic would arise,” he said. “But the responsibility of scientists if they make a useful discovery that could be important for public health is to file for patent, because the industry is going to need to invest enormous amounts of money in order to develop an idea into a genuine product, and they won’t do so unless they are ensured some chance of the return of their investment.”
The patent has allowed them to establish the partnership with Neovii, which guarantees them many opportunities, Gershoni said.
“Because of our previous research, we were positioned very well to study the novel coronavirus,” he said. “We anticipate that in a month or two we will be able to complete the reconstitution of the current virus’s receptor binding motif.” For the previous strains of coronaviruses it took their group several years, he added.
The final goal of the research is to develop a vaccine that potentially could be more efficient and safer than other vaccines because of the ability to target just the specific part of the virus that attacks the cell and not the whole protein spike, Gershoni said. This would save the immune system a lot of energy and prevent potential negative reactions mediated by irrelevant antibodies that have “missed their target,” something that can occur with less focused vaccines.
Their findings could be relevant not only to develop the vaccine but also therapeutic treatments for those who are already sick, he said.
While a vaccine is probably going to take at least a year, Gershoni said he has been very impressed by Neovii’s approach to imagine possible applications of the technology in intermediate stages to bring relief to patients.
In a joint press release, Neovii CEO Jürgen Pohle said: “The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how fragile and vulnerable our societies are in the face of a pandemic. We are extremely excited about our collaboration with Professor Gershoni and TAU, which provides Neovii with a first-in-class platform for the rapid development of promising vaccine candidates towards any future emerging pandemics, including COVID-19. Furthermore, the COVID-19 vaccine is highly synergistic to Neovii’s core expertise in the development and manufacturing of passive polyclonal antibodies and provides an opportunity to bring a COVID-19 immunotherapy in a rapid manner.”