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Wistar Science is Launchpad for Creating First MERS Vaccine that Has Completed Phase 1 Human Trial

August 27, 2019

Using enhanced DNA vaccine technology, Wistar scientists can speed the development of vaccines for emerging diseases creating impactful countermeasures against outbreaks.

Wistar’s Drs. Kar Muthumani, David Weiner and collaborators unlocked the R&D potential of synthetic DNA vaccines to develop the first synthetic DNA vaccine for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 11 months (research published in Science Translational Medicine in 2015). The vaccine entered and completed phase 1 human trials in 2017 and results were published on July 24, 2019 in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

In 2012, the first MERS outbreak occurred in Saudi Arabia. This virus had never been seen before. Spread through camels and bats, MERS is a highly infectious respiratory disease predominant in the Middle East. Fast forward to 2015, when an individual who had contracted MERS returned to South Korea from the Middle East. This led to a South Korean outbreak that resulted in 186 confirmed cases and 38 deaths. The outbreak affected 24 hospitals, led to the temporary closure of more than 2,000 schools, and had a significant impact on the South Korean economy.* In 2018, The World Health Organization (WHO) listed MERS as a potential public health emergency in the annual review of the Blueprint list of priority diseases.

“MERS was such a new emerging infectious disease that no research on it had been done before the 2012 outbreak,” said Muthumani. “But I knew MERS was similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), so I gathered knowledge of the 2001/2002 SARS outbreaks in China/Asia to guide how we would create a MERS vaccine.”

Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center is currently leading the charge for the development of multiple synthetic DNA-based vaccines. A synthetic DNA MERS vaccine works like this: An injection of a simple DNA plasmid tells the body to generate a foreign protein derived from the pathogen, which then causes the immune system to respond and destroy the MERS virus if it were to infect the body.

Though Muthumani and his team had to start from scratch because no reagents were available to design and test vaccine efficacy, Muthumani’s knowledge of SARS — a coronavirus related to MERS — was the blueprint from which they created reagents, a pseudo-virus and developed immune responses to multiple related strains of MERS.

There are several conceptual advantages to synthetic DNA vaccines compared to other vaccine platforms. DNA vaccines possess virtually no risk of causing disease since no infectious agents are injected into the body. DNA vaccines have had an exceptional safety profile in numerous clinical trials over the last 20 years. Additionally, new technologies allow DNA vaccines to be designed and manufactured quickly and inexpensively, which makes them an ideal platform for dealing with rapidly emerging pathogens that develop in underdeveloped regions of the world.

“With how fast pandemics spread in this day and age, this technology to swiftly craft a vaccine against new threats could be revolutionary,” said Muthumani.

*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention