How does the UK Approved COVID-19 vaccine work?

Synthetic Biology Technology has brought us to the point today that the UK has accepted one of the COVID-19 vaccines for distribution, with the promise that distribution will begin soon. This result has taken just 10 months, how have the pharmaceutical researchers managed to do this? Through advances in technology.

In reality, there are different types of COVID-19 vaccine currently in trials:

1: Live attenuated vaccines

Some well-known vaccines for other infectious diseases are based on weakened versions of a virus.  These are known as live attenuated vaccines.
The viruses are weakened to reduce virulence by culturing cells in a laboratory, and then processed into a vaccine. After people come into contact with these attenuated viruses through vaccination, the virus will not be able to replicate easily in humans. As a result, our immune system has enough time to learn how to fight against this weaker form of the virus. This approach enables us to become immune without getting sick.

2: Inactivated vaccines

Inactivated vaccines contain viruses or bacteria that have been killed, which are either whole or in pieces. When our immune system detects these dead viruses or bacteria or their fragments, it can learn to recognise the fragments. After this, we are protected. If we are infected by the live version of the virus or bacteria in the future, our immune system will recognise the virus or bacteria and respond more quickly to protect us from infection – so we will not become ill.

3: Subunit vaccines

If the vaccine only contains particular pieces of a virus or bacteria, it is known as a subunit vaccine. When that subunit can be recognised by the immune system, it is referred to as an antigen.
Extensive research is being carried out on subunit vaccines for protection against COVID-19. An important subunit of SARS-CoV-2 is the spike protein or S protein, which is attached to the exterior of the virus. The virus uses the S protein to make contact with another protein which is located on the exterior of the cells in our lung vesicles. If the virus attaches itself to a human cell via the S protein, the virus can penetrate the exterior and enter the cell. Then the cell is infected.  Because the S protein plays such an essential role in the infection process, it is targeted by many vaccine developers. If we are infected by the live version of the virus in the future, our immune system will immediately recognise the virus and we will not become ill.
 

4: mDNA and mRNA vaccines (m stands for messenger)

DNA and RNA vaccines add a new piece of genetic material – deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA) – to specific immune cells in our body. The targeted cells are often a particular type, which absorb and break down a virus or bacteria. The immune cells that have broken down a virus or bacteria then show a piece of the virus or bacteria (a subunit known as an antigen) to other immune cells so they learn to recognize the antigen. That is why these immune cells are also referred to as antigen-presenting cells. The cells that learn to recognize the antigen are called lymphocytes. DNA and RNA vaccines allow the antigen-presenting cells to detect a piece of the pathogen without the cell first having to absorb and break down the live version of the virus or bacteria. If we are then infected by the live version of the virus or bacteria in the future, the lymphocytes will recognize the antigen for the pathogen, neutralize the virus or bacteria, and we will not become ill.

There are also DNA and RNA vaccines that use ‘normal’ body cells instead of immune cells. These cells also present the antigen to our immune system, which ensures that we will not become ill if we do get infected. 
These DNA and RNA techniques are new, and a DNA or RNA vaccine has not yet been approved for any human disease. A number of DNA vaccines have already been used successfully for animals.
 

5: Vector vaccines

Researchers can modify existing viruses to act as vaccines. Once that happens, they are no longer viruses, but vectors. The viruses have been adapted in such a way that they do not display exactly the same behaviour as unmodified viruses. The difference compared to the real viruses is that vector viruses:

  • can no longer make someone ill;
  • (often) cannot replicate themselves, and;
  • not only contain their own RNA or DNA, but also have a piece of RNA or DNA from another virus within them. All pieces of RNA or DNA can work as an antigen, so the cells in our immune system will react to the vector virus as well as to part of the vaccine virus. This is how immunity is developed.

A category of viruses that are often adapted into a vector are the adenoviruses. Adenoviruses are a group of viruses to which people are often exposed, but which cause no or only mild illness. Because adenoviruses are so common, our immune system is very good at dealing with an adenovirus infection.

This article in Nature goes into further detail.

The vaccine approved today in the UK from Pfizer/BioNTech is an mRNA vaccine. This is cutting-edge technology, and the first time such a vaccine has been approved!

To produce an mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins. This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves. These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus. The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.

Synthetic Biology!

European Research Council Funding Discussion

What is the ERC?

The European Research Council (ERC) is one of the major sources of funding for scientific research in the EU. It is funded through the European Commission, and holds a particular position thanks to its aims and mission which are based on scientific excellence. The Council supports frontier research, cross disciplinary proposals and pioneering ideas in new and emerging fields which introduce unconventional and innovative approaches. The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields of research, on the basis of scientific excellence. A total budget of 13 095 million euro is available for the implementation of the ERC funding schemes under Horizon 2020.

Mission

The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence.

The ERC complements other funding activities in Europe such as those of the national research funding agencies, and is a flagship component of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s Research Framework Programme for 2014 to 2020.

Being ‘investigator-driven’, or ‘bottom-up’, in nature, the ERC approach allows researchers to identify new opportunities and directions in any field of research, rather than being led by priorities set by politicians. This ensures that funds are channelled into new and promising areas of research with a greater degree of flexibility.

ERC grants are awarded through open competition to projects headed by starting and established researchers, irrespective of their origins, who are working or moving to work in Europe. The sole criterion for selection is scientific excellence. The aim here is to recognise the best ideas, and confer status and visibility on the best brains in Europe, while also attracting talent from abroad.

However, the ERC aims to do more than simply fund research. In the long term, it looks to substantially strengthen and shape the European research system. This is done through high quality peer review, the establishment of international benchmarks of success, and the provision of up-to-date information on who is succeeding and why.

The hope is that these processes will help universities and other research institutions gauge their performance and encourage them to develop better strategies to establish themselves as more effective global players.

By challenging Europe’s brightest minds, the ERC expects that its grants will help to bring about new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries – the kind that can form the basis of new industries, markets, and broader social innovations of the future.

Ultimately, the ERC aims to make the European research base more prepared to respond to the needs of a knowledge-based society and provide Europe with the capabilities in frontier research necessary to meet global challenges.

The European Research Council supports frontier research, cross disciplinary proposals and pioneering ideas in new and emerging fields which introduce unconventional and innovative approaches. The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields of research, on the basis of scientific excellence. A total budget of 13 095 million euro is available for the implementation of the ERC funding schemes under Horizon 2020.

The Financial Discussion

The current pandemic and the chaos it has brought to European economies has however thrown a spanner in the works, as the European Council (Heads of State) are proposing a dramatic cut in funding.

As I write almost 25000 people have signed a petition, asking for funding to be maintained at a level at least equal to that of the last 7 years, and the Friends of the ERC have published the following open letter:

Open Letter

One of the greatest success stories of the EU in the last decade is the European Research Council (ERC). Thanks to its unique formula of independence from political intervention, bold research ideas, bottom-up approach, and a singu-lar focus on excellence, ERC grants have become one of the most prestigious research grants in the world.

In light of the current European debate on the next Multian-nual Financial Framework, there is significant reason to fear a cut across all areas of Horizon Europe, and we anticipate that this would also impact the ERC.We, the signatories of this petition, call upon the Heads of States and Governments, to secure funding for the ERC in Horizon Europe, the next European framework programme for Research and Innovation. Protecting and improving the ERC budget will secure con-tinued investments in research that pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and continues to strongly support Europe as a dynamic knowledge society.

The ERC is a major reason for Europe ́s increasing strength in research. The EU comprises 7% of the world’s population but produces 1/3 of the world’s high-quality sci-entific publications. It is therefore of paramount importance that this success story can continue to develop and increase its strength in Horizon Europe.

The ERC invests in top researchers in Europe, giving them the freedom to follow their scientific curiosity. Based on scientific excellence, the ERC supports research that is pushing the very frontiers of knowledge through competitive funding across all fields. Open to top talent worldwide, the ERC is a vital tool helping Europe to attract and retain the brightest minds, and to establish itself as a scientific powerhouse. Many great ideas already exist which will not receive funding under current budget constraints. With increased funding, many more scientific breakthroughs are possible, with a high degree of certainty.

We recognize the ERC as the most important European instrument for financing frontier research – the very foundation of disruptive innovation. Thanks to the successes of the ERC, Europe is well positioned to remain a world leading economy, succeed in the European Green Deal and make substantive contributions to the resolution of global societal challenges.

This investment in ground-breaking research has already paid off. It has led to countless breakthroughs, nurtured science-based industry and created a greater impetus for research-based spin-offs.

With this open petition letter, we urge the EU to protect the funding of the European Research Council in the long-term budget of the EU.

I follow developments carefully, and have signed the petition.

Art in Technological Development

Art is a Powerful Engine for Responsible Innovations

Art as a driver for responsible innovations is really my thing, and fortunately I am not alone.

In4Art is an interesting project that creates space for experiments on the intersection of art, science and technology and translates the outcomes to strategic implications and innovations.

The project’s focus is to increase the impact of art in society and economy by bringing systematic change to the domains of circular economy, material research and next generation internet. Care and Environment, a mix of sustainable development goals and positive impact for the broad society.

All of which sounds fantastic to me and worthy of further investigation, particularly bearing in mind that they have just launched a new explainer site for anyone interested in their Art Driven Innovation method.

Art experiments today often take place at the cutting edge of technological development, and can spark as well as act as an engine for innovation. See the diagram above taken from the website, it shows how artworks (or really the different ways that art broadens thinking) can be introduced into the process and have an effect on technological development.

From the website:

In4Art was founded in 2015 by Rodolfo and Lija Groenewoud van Vliet with the mission to increase the impact of innovative art in society and economy.  We believe art is a powerful engine for responsible innovations. It acts as an accelerator for innovation, offers reflections on our fast-changing high-tech society and by translating that into art-driven innovations it enables impact from economical, ethical, environmental, social and legal perspectives. Therefore, we create space for experiments on the intersection of art, science and technology and translate the outcomes into inspiration, strategic implications and responsible innovations.

We act as partners for the development of artistic prototypes into art-driven innovations and share their trans-formative potential, while building a network of forward looking, 21st century thinkers and doers. To do so, we created the method – Art-Driven Innovation, which guides us in our innovation projects, collection, experiments and research, focusing on breakthrough technologies in the domains of next generation internet, materials for a sustainable future and biotech.

Art on the Blog

The topic of art and its relation to technological development is not new to the blog, several years ago we investigated nano-art, but the focus on how artistic involvement can influence trajectory, and move towards responsibility is new and exciting.

The artworks section of the explainer site offers some fantastic examples of technology/science/innovation/art fusion.

A very thought-provoking project with an entertaining pair of websites, why not take a look? Technological development and art have always had close connections after all.

Just think about Leonardo da Vinci!