Academy Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala at the University of Eastern Finland is working together with scientists from the University of Helsinki to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that will make use of gene transfer technology that has been developed in Kuopio. The efficacy of the vaccine, developed in collaboration with Professor Kalle Saksela and Academy Professor Kari Alitalo, can possibly be tested already this autumn.
The drug development process can move forward quickly, thanks to the scientists already having the required technology at hand. Professor Saksela’s research group is in possession of the surface protein of the COVID-19 virus, which is what the human body will build immunity to. Academy Professors Alitalo and Ylä-Herttuala, in turn, have the skills and expertise needed to introduce the protein to the human body.
The vaccine will be administered as a nasal spray, using gene transfer technology. Academy Professor Ylä-Herttula’s research group at the A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences is internationally recognised for the development of this technology. The vaccine is based on a safe adenovirus carrier, which will contain genetic information on how to produce COVID-19 virus surface protein in humans. The administration of the vaccine as a spray into the nose and the upper respiratory tract will start the formation of antibodies against the COVID-19 virus.
According to Academy Professor Ylä-Herttuala, the development of the vaccine is made easier by the fact that there is an abundance of just one protein on the surface of the COVID-19 virus, and this is the protein against which antibodies are formed. For the vaccine, only the protein and not the virus itself, are needed. Many other vaccines use the disease-causing virus either in a weakened or in a modified form.
“Similar vaccines that are based on gene transfer have also been developed against the SARS and MERS viruses, and with promising results.”
Although the drug development process is moving forward rapidly, Academy Professor Ylä-Herttuala points out that it is not possible to roll out the domestic COVID-19 vaccine on a large scale this year, because its efficacy and safety need to be properly demonstrated.
“However, we will be able to start clinical trials quickly, perhaps already in the autumn.”
With a special permit, the new vaccine’s approval process can be expedited. Academy Professor Ylä-Hettuala believes that the nasal vaccine could be available for the second wave of the pandemic.
The scientists emphasise that their vaccine development does not seek to compete with that of multinational pharmaceutical companies. Instead, it can play a role in safeguarding Finland’s self-sufficiency and security of supply. The scientists also hope that the development and funding of the COVID-19 vaccine in Finland would be carried out in a coordinated manner.
“It would be a smart move to focus our limited resources on a single, large-scale project. We could accomplish great things,” Academy Professor Ylä-Herttula says.
Photo: Academy Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala, University of Eastern Finland, A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences, tel. +358 40 355 2075, seppo.ylaherttuala(at)uef.fi