In the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, assistant professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Aaron Esser-Kahn’s research was well suited to quickly redirect his project’s target to the novel coronavirus. His lab works on vaccine design to mitigate unintended side effects of vaccines and nudge the immune system toward developing important virus-fighting antigens.
It didn’t take much to gear his lab’s research toward COVID-19. “We already had plans to vaccinate animals with flu antigens, and we just swapped out the antigen,” Esser-Kahn said.
Esser-Kahn said that people are shocked to find out how long it takes to develop vaccines. He explained why developing preventative therapy is so painstaking: “The risk-cost benefit is so high. Vaccines have to be safer than going outside, that’s how safe it has to be.”
Many vaccines that have great potential also trigger excess alarm bells in the immune system, which usually eliminates such vaccines as candidates. To develop a vaccine that is attenuated enough so as to be safe while still producing a sufficient immune response to result in immunity, Esser-Kahn designs vaccines that contain molecules that decrease any excessive immune responses.
This technique of accessorizing the vaccine is a key process in developing a safe vaccine, according to Esser-Kahn. “You can add in molecules that selectively inhibit portions of innate [immune] cells to reduce their inflammatory nature but allow them to do all the antigen presentation they are supposed to do.”
In this pandemic, the time crunch means Esser-Kahn’s lab is operating with less information than they would usually have available. “We had previously focused on [vaccine design for] the diseases where there were effective vaccines against those diseases,” Esser-Kahn said. Because it is unclear which candidate vaccines will be effective against COVID-19, it is unclear whether their work will be useful in this immediate pandemic.
Esser-Kahn said it’s too hard to place bets on specific vaccine trials or even specific avenues of research, for that matter.
He said that unexpected success stories are part of basic science research and our current pandemic. “Remdesivir seems to be making real headway against this disease,” he said
“[Remdesivir] was developed against Ebola, where it completely crashed and burned. Somebody out there, maybe on our campus, is looking at an antiviral that may not work for this disease but may be useful for the next thing.”