An Argentinian team made up of scientists from the Faculty of Biochemistry and Biological Sciences of the National University of the Litoral (FBCB – UNL), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (Conicet) and the companies Cellargen Biotech SRL and Biotecnofe SA (Argentina) will work on the development of recombinant proteins for use in vaccines that can prevent COVID-19. They also intend to develop kits for the diagnosis, control and monitoring of the disease.
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Financing of $100,000 for the UNL’s team project
The work team will receive funding from the National Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation based on a call for funding recently proposed by the agency. The scientist will advance research to develop the technology for producing proteins for vaccines.
This project idea was selected among 900 other proposals from all over Argentina, submitted in the Special Call for Funding to Improve Argentina’s Response to the Pandemic. UNL team would receive $100,000 for the implementation of the project. The application was made by the team of researchers and managers of Cetri Litoral of the UNL Secretariat for Liaison and Technology Transfer. It has the management capacities and experience to carry out services of formulation, technical advice, and project management to research groups, laboratories, institutes, and companies that develop science and technology in the region and the country.
Argentina has entered the race to halt the COVID-19 pandemic
Currently, various organizations in different countries are seeking solutions that can prevent or combat the new coronavirus and prevent its expansion. So far, two vaccines are in the clinical phase and two other projects are in the preclinical phase. It is not yet possible to predict their results, so it is necessary to expand local capacities to implement biotechnology produced in the country or imported, to stop the pandemic.
In this sense, a team of scientists and businessmen presented to the National Government a project that aims to produce in a fast, simple, efficient and biosafe way recombinant SARS-CoV-2 proteins for biotherapeutic and diagnostic purposes for Covid-19.
“We propose to develop a vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles with recombinant SARS-CoV-2 proteins and to test the generated immune response in experimental animals. Before the end of the year, we will know if the proposed vaccine candidates induce the production of neutralizing antibodies. Then, we will begin a new phase that includes assays on humans,” explained Claudio Prieto, the researcher who heads the team.
They also seek to produce reagents and inputs to be used in the implementation of diagnostic control and monitoring kits. He added that “these are the reagents necessary for the development of diagnostic kits to be able to carry out epidemiological studies that evaluate the presence of antibodies against the virus in the population,” mainly for use in people who have already been infected.
The ultimate goal of these tests is to evaluate the epidemiological status of the inhabitants. Regarding these analytical tools for control and monitoring, the group proposes two tests. One of bioassays, possible to be performed in highly complex laboratories and with results in 24 hours and another of biochemical type to be transferred to laboratories with less equipment.
This project is based on a technological platform already installed in Santa Fe to investigate virus-like particles (VLPs), “these particles imitate the conformation of the virus and allow to vaccinate people or animals with biosafe vaccines, based mainly on recombinant cell cultures,” commented the researcher.
When it comes to biosafe vaccines, it means that the procedures for their production do not use viruses, as is the case with other options, which brings some risks of infection. “What we do is, through genetic engineering, modify the genome of the cells that produce the vaccine, so that they only express a coding gene for a key protein of the virus, which when used as a vaccine, are capable of generating antibodies in animals or in humans,” Prieto said to complement.
The technology platform has highly trained personnel with extensive experience in development and technology transfer for the pharmaceutical industry. Laboratory, pilot and industrial scale equipment, as well as cell banks optimized for quick and easy implementation in bioreactors.
The biotech companies Cellagen and Biotecnofe will also be part of the project
The multidisciplinary team is composed of 16 researchers based at the Centro Biotecnológico del Litoral, belonging to the Faculty of Biochemistry and Biological Sciences of the UNL and 8 linked to the companies Cellargen Biotech SRL, pre-incubated in the Faculty, and Biotecnofe SA, incubated in the Parque Tecnológico del Litoral Centro.
This working group has a long history of developing other vaccines for both humans and animals, including an anti-rabies vaccine and one for hepatitis B. This means that they can use all the accumulated knowledge and the available equipment to search for solutions to the coronavirus more quickly.
To achieve the objectives, the tasks related to the development of diagnostic kits and analysis of the immune response of the vaccinated animals will be carried out at the Centro Biotecnológico del Litoral. At Cellargen Biotech SRL, work will be done on the production and characterization of VLPs at laboratory scale, while at Biotecnofe SA, bioprocesses will be scaled up in a pilot plant.
Producing the vaccines locally will also help the economy
The idea is that these vaccines and kits can, in the future, be produced in these local companies, which would also generate a high economic impact in the region. “To do this, it is necessary to carry out all the scaling up tests in order to analyze whether the experiments developed on a small scale can be transformed into a final product. This is a new stage, for which it is also important to have more investment and support,” said Prieto.
Another characteristic of this moment has to do with the need for a rapid response. This is not usual in the area of medical research, since the development of a vaccine involves many years of research in various stages. In this sense, this project proposes to deliver in six months the necessary antigens for the development of the diagnostic kits. After one year of work, it is planned to deliver the complete development of the diagnostic kits and the results of the tests on animals with the prototypes or vaccine candidates. “I cannot recall a similar case where there are so many private or state groups or investments, to find a solution to a disease. This surely has to do with the severity of the case and how it has been occurring over the past few months,” Prieto added.
This response capacity and the speed with which antigens for diagnostic kits could be produced is one of the highlights of this UNL proposal. It has mainly to do with the experience and know-how acquired by the team and the installed capacity at the University.
In addition to the rapid response, another innovative question has to do with the vaccine candidate, since “we will try to produce a particle in which the necessary antigens of the virus are expressed in interaction with the cells, so as to be able to induce in the animal or the vaccinated human, neutralizing antibodies to this interaction,” explained Prieto.
Zelltek’s proposal will also be financed
Another proposal that will receive financing is a project presented by the company Zelltek SA., Also incubated at UNL, today based on the PTLC and part of the Amegabiotech pharmaceutical group. The project, “Developing a Low-Cost, Sensitive Method to Detect Antibodies to SARS-Cov-2,” was also selected for funding.
A team of 10 people will work for the development and production of a kit for the diagnosis of virus antibodies that can be used in clinical laboratories. The proposal seeks to produce the COVID-19 detection tests locally, which are already manufactured in other parts of the world, avoiding dependence on these imports and facilitating detection in asymptomatic patients.
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First published in NCYT, a third-party contributor translated and adapted the article from the original. In case of discrepancy, the original will prevail.
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