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Moving the Needle Forward: Wistar Research Leads to a Coronavirus Vaccine Entering Human Trials and Additional Wistar Coronavirus Research Projects Underway

April 9, 2020

While the world struggles with a growing number of people sickened with COVID-19 and health care workers engage in a tireless and heroic mission to save lives, biomedical researchers are on the front lines of a parallel and equally critical battle to develop new tools to effectively diagnose, treat and prevent a disease we are still learning about.

Scientists at The Wistar Institute’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center (VIC) have been working long hours and over weekends, devising new strategies to apply their expertise and technological platforms to combat SARS-Cov-2. 

So far, the work has paid off. The second COVID-19 vaccine to move into clinical testing in the U.S. is due in part to Wistar’s effort and comes from the team led by Dr. David Weiner and including Drs. Daniel Kulp, Ami Patel and Kar Muthumani, in collaboration with biotech company Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

This vaccine, based on synthetic DNA technology, was advanced in record time from computer design to preclinical testing in just under three months. Results from preclinical studies show the vaccine is effective at inducing both antibody and T cell-mediated responses soon after delivery in mice and guinea pigs, allowing researchers to unlock the next step — human testing subsequent to FDA approval.

Data from these studies are available to the scientific community while the manuscript is under consideration for publication in a high-impact journal.

Even though the vaccine will go through further testing in the lab as new tools and reagents become available, scientists have passed the baton to their pharmaceutical partner and the doctors and clinical experts working with the company to evaluate the safety of the coronavirus vaccine in people.

Announced by Inovio on Monday, April 6, the vaccine just entered a phase 1 clinical study coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania. 40 healthy adult participants in Philadelphia and Kansas City, Missouri will receive two vaccine doses four weeks apart, and initial data on immune responses and safety from this study are expected by late summer.

“I am extremely proud of all the work done by our scientists for this vaccine and the role played by Wistar as an academic engine of new technologies that are the basis for future medicines,” said Dario C. Altieri, M.D., Wistar president and CEO. “Hopefully, one day not so long from now, we will have a preventative vaccine to help curb the pandemic. It would be another enormous Wistar contribution to human health.”

In these times we need as many tools as possible to stem the pandemic. Wistar scientists are actively developing other vaccine approaches and therapeutic strategies, ranging from tricking the virus into attaching to decoy receptors to prevent it from infecting cells, to reducing inflammation that causes disease severity in those infected with the virus, to alternative ways to make and deliver protective antibodies that will neutralize the virus.

Although in early stages, most of this research has the potential to be advanced fairly quickly due to the nature of the approaches and our scientists’ previous experience with tackling other infectious agents.

“We are very excited about the potential of our COVID-19 vaccine,” said Weiner. “The preclinical results thus far motivate us to focus our efforts in additional directions and do our best to advance more approaches that can ultimately make a difference in this pandemic.”

To catalyze Wistar’s coronavirus research endeavor, the Institute recently launched the Wistar Coronavirus Discovery Fund, which will support a range of research programs and enhance the ability of our scientists to pursue innovative solutions as quickly as possible.

As the World Health Organization remarked, “Coronavirus research has accelerated at incredible speed…” because scientists, funders and international organizations have come together to solve the crisis. 

“We are all in this together and together we can all do our part,” said Weiner.