COVID-19 vaccine developed at University of Alberta proceeds to clinical trials

EDMONTON — An Alberta-developed COVID-19 vaccine using new technology is one step closer to starting clinical trials.

John Lewis, University of Alberta professor and CEO of Entos Pharmaceuticals, has shipped a vaccine for further testing to the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax – a step forward toward its Health Canada approval. The made-in-Alberta COVID-19 vaccine will commence its Health Canada Phase 1 human clinical trial with the aim of moving it to a larger Phase 2 trial by late spring to test its efficacy.

“Its been a long road,” Lewis said in an interview with CTV News Edmonton. “I am definitely enthusiastic about where it is going from here.”

Currently there are four vaccines authorized for use by Health Canada, including the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Unlike the other vaccines that rely on messenger RNA (mRNA), the Entos version is DNA-based. It uses engineered DNA to stimulate a response from the immune system instead of injecting a weakened form of the virus into the body.

According to Lewis, while the technology of the Entos vaccine is similar to that within the Moderna and Pfizer variation, mRNA vaccines have some drawbacks that their DNA-based vaccine does not.

“RNA is an unstable molecule, and those vaccines require -80 degree Celsius storage. That is a real challenge to scale the manufacturing and then distribute the vaccines to anywhere but urban areas,” Lewis said.

“And we’ve seen those challenges, certainly with the worldwide rollout of these vaccines. People are over the moon about their effectiveness, but then are finding it a huge challenge to actually get the doses in people’s arms.”

The Entos vaccine is more stable and can be stored in a regular refrigerator for over a year. Lewis said the team is hoping the vaccine will be effective after only a single dose.

The vaccine has been tested so far in animals to examine its ability to develop neutralizing antibodies and T-cell responses for long-term immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

VACCINE MADE IN U OF A FACILITY

The Entos vaccine was manufactured at the Alberta Cell Therapy Manufacturing Facility in Edmonton at the U of A. Lewis added that the team has been working “day and night” every day since last March. At the beginning of 2020, Lewis had 12 full-time staff. That has ballooned now to 40.

The facility opened in 2016 to help develop cell-based therapies. It partnered with Entos in the summer of 2020. 

“You hear the government getting raked over the coals because Canada doesn’t have vaccine production capability,” said Greg Korbutt, scientific director of the facility. 

“Well, we do. It’s small, but look, we made a Canadian COVID vaccine here at the U of A.”

Lewis’ team was working on a genetic approach to cancer medication when they pivoted their research to developing a vaccine for COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. He highlighted how developing vaccines takes a huge effort and having a local capacity to aid that is a national security issue.

“When we look at the way innovation and manufacturing happens particularly for vaccines, it takes a huge effort and it takes a long time for us to scale to the capacity to address the world.”

“We are looking at potentially 16 billion doses that need to be delivered worldwide,” Lewis said. “We really owe it to ourselves to build this capacity in Canada. There’s no reason why we can’t – for this pandemic or future pandemics, [so] we’re ready.”

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