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Spotlight on Wistar COVID-19 Researcher: Ami Patel, Ph.D.

May 29, 2020

Research assistant professor Ami Patel has spent her career committed to using novel engineering approaches to fight harmful infectious diseases. Her work focuses on developing next generation vaccines and immunotherapies using DNA as part of her toolset.  Dr. Patel has been at the forefront of the Wistar Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a major scientific contributor to the preclinical studies that enabled one of the first vaccine candidates developed to rapidly move into clinical trials. Dr. Patel walks us through her work.

I have always been interested in infectious diseases and understanding how something that you can’t see with your eyes can make you sick. I am particularly fascinated about how infectious diseases are evolving and new infections are emerging for which existing drugs and vaccines are not effective. I am passionate about developing strategies to fine-tune our bodies to better fight these infections that affect global public health.

COVID-19 is the latest emerging pathogen, the so-called Disease X.  The scientific community is working hard to understand the biology of COVID-19; this information is vital for research teams like ours at Wistar so that we can develop drugs and vaccines to protect us all.

Historically, vaccine development is a very lengthy process. In this pandemic, the scientific community had to react rapidly to fast-track the work required to develop a vaccine. Research is developing at an astonishing speed and every day new studies come out that help us put together the very challenging puzzle that is COVID-19. Thanks to research advancements and new technologies, we have improved tools that make the design and initial testing of vaccines much faster than with traditional platforms.

Though we are under immense pressure to accelerate the path to human trials, rigorous preclinical testing remains an essential cornerstone in vaccine development, giving us a host of information on the vaccine candidate that will instruct clinical development. We are focusing our energy on developing the best possible vaccine candidate that we can and making sure that we test it rigorously in preclinical biomedical assays to support moving it to people.

My work, conducted at Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center led by Dr. David Weiner and in collaboration with our colleagues at Inovio Pharmaceuticals, was focused on just that: Making sure our novel synthetic DNA vaccine candidate is immunogenic in animal models and produces an immune response suitable for a potential vaccine candidate.

Preclinical testing of the new vaccine candidate was the basis for initiation of Phase 1 clinical trials that are currently being conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. We recently published our findings in Nature Communications.

The immune response, as demonstrated by the antibodies produced by immunized animals, neutralized the virus, blocking its ability to interact with its receptor on host cells and preventing the virus from infecting them. The vaccine also activated specialized immune cell responses, known as T cells, which are also important for clearing infection from the body.

Yet, our work is not over. Our collaborators are conducting further testing in other larger animal models that are more similar to humans to give us an indication of the ability of the vaccine to effectively protect the body from getting infected.

In addition to vaccine work, which will hopefully help curb transmission and protect people from getting sick, we also need to advance better diagnostics and therapies to treat people that have become infected.

As many people are now aware, the most severe cases of COVID-19 are associated with lung inflammation. I am interested in applying what I have learned from the preclinical studies to design immune therapies that will reduce lung inflammation due to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

I am hopeful that we will get there with the joint effort of all scientists in the field. When I think about scientific progress, it is really about bringing global research together to conquer new frontiers and solve the most pressing problems that affect human health.