The race toward a vaccine
Across the globe, some 150 studies are currently being conducted to find a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica will start testing its potential vaccine on humans in July. These clinical trials will take place in the US and Flanders/Belgium. By the first half of 2021, the pharmaceutical company hopes to have a working vaccine.
But there's also the Rega Institute of KU Leuven, biotech research center VIB, Pfizer’s vaccine production unit in Puurs... in short, a myriad of companies, universities and research institutes in Flanders, have joined the global quest for a COVID-19 vaccine. We’ve covered various initiatives in previous articles on how togetherness and multidisciplinary talent are crucial in the battle against coronavirus, as well as in a news article on Flanders’ upcoming vaccinopolis. But the list goes on…
At the end of May 2020, for example, Novartis subsidiary Avexis announced that it would start the pro bono production of clinical test vaccines developed by Luk Vandenberghe, a PhD researcher from Flanders who’s working on a gene vaccine in Boston (US). As it’s not clear yet which antigens induce the best immune response, Vandenberghe and his team introduced 9 vaccine candidates that target particles of the spike proteins with which the coronavirus attaches itself to human airway cells. Two of these candidates are now being produced in order to start clinical trials in summer 2020. “The deal with Novartis will save us months,” comments Vandenberghe.
Other researchers from Flanders are making headway, too. In May 2020, Professor Neyts (KU Leuven) and his team announced excellent test results for a study that seeks to repurpose an existing yellow fever vaccine. “This vaccine has been around for more than 80 years and has been administered to a billion people,” the professor explains. “It’s very effective and safe. One injection leads to lifelong immunity.”
So, how does the repurposing work? The research team introduces a piece of the coronavirus’s genetic code into that of the yellow fever vaccine. In this way, the scientists developed 7 candidate vaccines that have already been tested on rodents. The next step is to repeat the tests and then test the vaccine on humans. “We’re on schedule,” says Neyts. “And we have great hope of being on the right track!”
Unraveling the immune response in COVID-19 patients
Coronavirus took the world by storm. To be better prepared in case of another pandemic, the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp (Flanders) has started carrying out groundbreaking research in collaboration with Antwerp University Hospital (UZA) and Antwerp University (UAntwerpen).
“Vaccine research almost always requires extensive knowledge of a specific virus,” says ITM professor Koen Vercauteren. “This is a lengthy process, whereas an outbreak requires a fast response. That’s why our research looks at the human body itself, rather than at individual viruses.” Using samples from COVID-19 patients, the team will analyze white blood cells using high-end computer models. The goal is to better understand the different levels of disease severity in order to determine the required immune response for a vaccine more quickly.
Antibodies on the radar
Vaccines aren’t the only holy grail that scientists are after since the COVID-19 outbreak. The search for antibodies has advanced greatly as well. Where regular vaccines introduce a weakened version of the virus to kickstart the body into creating its own antibodies, working directly with antibodies offers immediate (yet shorter) protection. The main advantage? The body doesn’t need to produce its own antibodies. This is especially beneficial for older and more vulnerable people, whose bodies often respond only mildly to vaccines, possibly leading to incomplete protection.
In this quest for COVID-19 antibodies, a llama from Flanders named Winter has offered great hope to scientists. Four years ago, prof. Xavier Saelens and his VIB-UGent team injected Winter with proteins from the SARS and MERS viruses. They wanted to find out how the llama would react to this injection, as part of their search for a vaccine against those earlier coronaviruses. Winter’s antibodies now appear to be effective against the new coronavirus as well.
Managing the vital COVID-19 information stream
As we continue to learn more about the coronavirus, information about the COVID-19 pandemic is evolving rapidly. To improve the way these insights are organized and shared, data specialist ONTOFORCE (Flanders) launched a special version of its self-service knowledge discovery platform, dubbing it ‘the DISQOVER COVID-19 Edition’. “To help researchers, scientists, healthcare providers and citizens, we bring together siloed knowledge about COVID-19, including up-to-date information on clinical studies, scholarly articles, patent documents, medicines, treatments, genes, disease phenotypes and more,” states founder Hans Constandt.
Plasma as a cure
As a cure for COVID-19 is yet to be developed, healthcare workers and researchers are experimenting with emergency treatments to give relief to severely ill patients. One such treatment involves injecting blood plasma from a COVID-19 survivor into a patient’s bloodstream.
This experimental treatment, known as convalescent plasma, is exactly what the Flanders-based team of prof. Bart Lambrecht (VIB-UGent) applied to save a patient’s life at the end of April 2020. They found a willing plasma donor closer than expected: a doctor from the university hospital of Ghent (UZ Gent), who had previously recovered from COVID-19, agreed to the procedure. After his blood plasma was injected into the bloodstream of the patient, who had been on a ventilator for two weeks, the results were remarkable. Within a mere two days after the transfusion, the patient no longer needed respiratory assistance and started recovering rapidly.
What’s more, a few weeks later, a research team from Flanders announced promising research findings that further back the promising results reached through emergency convalescent plasma transfusions. The VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research identified a new type of antigen that plays a crucial role in the immune response to respiratory infections. The findings could explain the mechanism behind how convalescent plasma helps boost immune responses in virus-infected patients, including in people infected with coronavirus.
KU Leuven, one of Flanders’ universities, has launched a large-scale study to find out even more about the topic. A total of 384 COVID-19 patients will be involved in the study: 2/3 will be injected with convalescent plasma and compared to patients who were not. “We hope the plasma will heal them and prevent them from ending up on ventilators. As such, we seek to help not just patients, but also society at large. After all, if too many COVID-19 patients need artificial respiration at the same time, our intensive care units risk becoming overloaded.”
Clinical trials in Belgium and Flanders: fast, interconnected and powered by research
In the absence of a vaccine and treatment, numerous clinical trials have been set up to test whether existing drugs can be repurposed to treat COVID-19. Belgium, of which Flanders is the northern region, is long established as the place to be in this respect. “Our clinical trial system is renowned worldwide for its speed,” explains prof. Bart Lambrecht (VIB-UGent) to life sciences content platform BioVox. “We have been able to approve COVID-19 trials within 2 to 3 days. What also sets us apart is the strong connection between the work done in clinical settings and the basic science conducted at our research institutes.”
Prof. Lambrecht is one of many academics in Flanders currently leading clinical trials in the face of COVID-19. Two of the main trials (SARPAC and COV-AID) aim to bring relief to patients with hypoxia, a lack of oxygen due to damaged lung tissue. “It’s too early for firm conclusions, but we’re very optimistic,” says Lambrecht. “For COV-AID, in particular, we’re seeing huge improvements in individual patients.”
Testing and diagnostic innovations
As early COVID-19 symptoms – including fever, fatigue, body aches and a dry cough – are somewhat similar to flu symptoms, medical professionals need to be very careful when diagnosing and differentiating between these diseases. To help with this daunting task, many initiatives have been launched to speed up COVID-19 sample testing. One such project is led by Biocartis, an innovative molecular diagnostics company from Mechelen (Flanders). Its new Idylla™ SARS-Cov-2 test can help healthcare professionals rapidly and easily test people with flu-like symptoms using Biocartis’ fully automated molecular diagnostics platform.
In addition to developing new tests, artificial intelligence (AI) can also play a role in diagnosing COVID-19 as fast as possible. In this respect, icometrix (Leuven) started working on an AI-based software solution called ‘icolung’ early on in the coronavirus pandemic. In cooperation with dozens of hospitals, the project involved training icometrix’s brain scan interpretation software to analyze lung scans.
It didn’t take long for the innovative technology from Flanders to conquer the world. On 23 April 2020, the solution received the CE marking from the European Commission and became available on a global scale. In mid-May, the American Food & Drug Administration also gave permission for the clinical use of the icolung algorithms on lung scans of COVID-19 patients. The groundbreaking tech assists medical staff in the rapid and objective triage of patients infected with coronavirus by assessing the stage and severity of the disease.
Meanwhile, test tech is also crucial during the care process that follows diagnosis. In this context, a promising innovation has been developed by Byteflies, a medtech firm from Mechelen (Flanders), together with 6 other tech companies. It involves a smart, AI-driven medical patch that’s placed on a patient’s chest to constantly measure their heart rate, breathing patterns and temperature. The data is transmitted wirelessly to a digital platform that healthcare workers can consult. Thanks to the use of innovative glues and electrodes, the patch can be worn for 5 to 6 days without the reapplication of adhesive instead of just one, as is the case with most systems currently used.
Practical and safe: lung examination from a distance
While regular lung health checks are required to monitor COVID-19 patients, they pose a challenge for healthcare professionals, who need to enter the patient’s room wearing sterile clothing and then completely change and wash their hands before examining the next patient. To improve safety and reduce the workload, a team of researchers from Flanders Make @ UAntwerp has therefore developed a remote stethoscope system that allows lung examination without direct physical contact. Following the test phase at Antwerp University Hospital, the system will be offered as an open-source solution to support physicians worldwide.