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eTheRNA: training the immune system to fight COVID-19

When it comes to biopharma firms in Flanders participating in the quest for a COVID-19 vaccine, the spotlight is mainly on industry leaders such as Pfizer (Puurs) and Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica (Beerse). However, lesser-known eTheRNA Immunotherapies, a biopharma company based in Niel, is also making great headway with a candidate vaccine that “takes more time to develop” but “has never been done before” according to Wim Tiest, director of Infectious Diseases at eTheRNA.  

Lab research

Promising outsider

Created in 2013 as a VUB university spin-off, eTheRNA has announced that it will raise EUR 34 million in extra capital. The aim? To accelerate the development of its potential immunotherapies for cancer treatment and of its candidate COVID-19 vaccine. In the latter field, the biotech firm is somewhat of an outsider. “We aren’t starting from existing vaccine technology, nor are we aiming for a vaccine that will generate antibodies against the virus,” Tiest explains. “Instead, we want to train the T-cells of the immune system to recognize and repel a virus attack.”  

Training the immune system

eTheRNA builds on its existing immunotherapy technologies targeting skin and breast cancer. These therapies have messenger RNA (m-RNA) as their central molecular building block, which acts as a genetic messenger in the blood and makes cells produce specific proteins that train the immune system to attack cancer cells, for example. The therapy happens via an injection and reprograms the immune cells in such a way that they fight tumor cells.  

eTheRNA’s candidate RNA vaccine for COVID-19 should work according to a similar process, but as a nasal spray. The idea is to inject the body with the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, so that immune cells are trained to recognize and attack these virus particles in case of exposure to the actual virus.  

Expert consortium

To gather the necessary support to achieve its ambitions, eTheRNA established an international consortium at the end of March 2020. Tiest: “The consortium includes US biotech company EpiVax, which can combine those coronavirus particles suitable for boosting the immune system. And for animal models, we work together with Canadian biotech company Nexelis. We can accelerate the development process by partly relying on existing expertise.”  

“The first animal tests are promising,” Tiest goes on to say. “The RNA is effectively ‘delivered’ into the noses of mice. In a few weeks' time, Nexelis will set up tests to see whether this procedure also triggers an immune reaction.”  

Broader protection

As soon as all the required data is available, eTheRNA will turn to the international vaccine coalition CEPI, which supports promising COVID-19 vaccine platforms worldwide, for additional funding. But while pharma giant Johnson & Johnson plans to set up major clinical trials as early as July 2020, eTheRNA hopes to start testing its vaccine on healthy volunteers in the course of 2021.  

“Our vaccine needs more time, because we are starting from scratch,” Tiest explains. “Even though there is a lot of evidence that T-cells play an important role in immunity and our production process is relatively simple and scalable, no such vaccine has ever been made. However, our candidate vaccine works in way that complements rapidly developed vaccines and can provide broader protection. The risk of vaccines based on the activation of antibodies is that they focus on the outside of viral cells, and may not protect against mutated strains.”  

“By contrast, our T-cell vaccine tackles the less-variable reproductive mechanism of the virus to provide deeper protection – hopefully also against variants and successors of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”  

More info

eTheRNA
Reported by
Newspaper De Tijd
18 June 2020

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