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Collaborating to Develop a COVID-19 Vaccine

Researchers will leverage a vaccine platform that has proven powerful with other infectious diseases

Dr. Natasa Strbo, in front of a poster highlighting the scientific career
of the late Dr. Eckhard Podack, whose lab developed the gp96 vaccine platform.

Around the world, infectious disease experts are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus COVID-19. But at the Miller School of Medicine, a collaborative research team is focusing on stimulating the body’s immune system to fight off the virus, avoiding potential issues associated with attenuated live viral vaccines.

“Our approach is designed to reprogram live cells to continually secrete antigens that activate a robust, long-term immune system response,” said Natasa Strbo, M.D., D.Sc., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, who is leading the Miller School research team. “This could protect against coronavirus strains across diverse human populations and against potential future mutations.”

The Miller School’s immunology researchers are working together with North Carolina-based Heat Biologics, Inc. and plan to leverage the company’s proprietary vaccine platform, which is based on the work of the late Eckhard Podack, M.D., Ph.D., former chair of the Miller School’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Rigorous Patient Testing

In the early 2000s, Dr. Podack studied the heat shock protein gp96 as a potential treatment for non-small cell lung cancer and co-founded Heat Biologics in 2008. Since then, the gp96 protein has undergone rigorous testing in National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense-funded laboratory trials as a vaccine against HIV, malaria, and other infectious diseases, and has been tested on more than 300 patients in Heat-funded oncology trials.

“We believe the gp96 platform will stimulate immune responses from T-cells, which play a crucial role in protection against coronaviruses and clearing them from the body, said Dr. Strbo, whose work has focused on HIV, malaria, Zika, and other infectious diseases. “The current gp96-based vaccines have demonstrated effectiveness in laboratory models, supporting the broader use of the vaccine platform against other viruses, such as COVID-19.”