Locking down shape-shifting spike protein aids development of COVID-19 vaccine

The experimental vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 that was the first to enter human trials in the United States has been shown to elicit neutralizing antibodies and a helpful T-cell response with the aid of a carefully engineered spike protein that mimics the infection-spreading part of the virus.

The latest paper about a Moderna-NIH vaccine that recently entered phase 3 human trials was published today in the journal Nature; its leading authors are Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' (NIAID) Vaccine Research Center, part of the National Institutes of Health, and Andrea Carfi of biotech company Moderna. It describes both preclinical results and important protein engineering led by a team at The University of Texas at Austin.

The paper describes in part work to stabilize an otherwise-shifting part of the virus: the protein that fuses with and infects cells, called the spike protein. Earlier research into coronaviruses was critical for the fastest-ever progression from virus genome sequencing to vaccine testing in humans, which took only 66 days.

"Several things were key for rapid vaccine development, including understanding the precise atomic-level structure of the spike protein and how to stabilize it," said UT Austin associate professor of molecular biosciences Jason McLellan, an author on the paper. "As fast as this all happened, the development was possible because of years of earlier research."

The members of the NIAID team and McLellan laboratory at UT Austin announced earlier this year that they had mapped the molecular structure of a stabilized spike protein within weeks of receiving the genetic sequence, publishing the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in the journal Science. NIAID and the biotechnology company Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked to develop a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, which, according to the NIH, directs the body's cells to express the spike in its prefusion conformation to elicit an immune response. Today's paper describes findings that the vaccine keeps infection from spreading into the airways of mice, produces neutralizing antibodies and prompts a response in immune cells called memory T-cells.

The stabilized spike protein, known as the S-2P protein, also features in several other coronavirus vaccines currently in clinical trials.

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is a shape-shifter, changing its structure before and after fusing with cells. The immune system responds best when the spike protein is in its prefusion shape, so McLellan's team reengineered the protein in two key places to lock it into that shape.

McLellan's postdoctoral researcher Nianshuang Wang had identified genetic mutations necessary to stabilize the shape-shifting spike protein for MERS-CoV back in 2017, and the team found the same tactic works with the new coronavirus. Using small genetic modifications to the gene sequence that encodes for the protein, the researchers essentially make part of the spring-loaded portion of the molecule more rigid, preventing it from rearranging.

Instead of a painful process of trial and error, the researchers designed the necessary mutations within about a day of receiving the SARS-CoV-2 virus genome. The McLellan lab completed the atomic-level structure, and graduate student Daniel Wrapp harvested and purified the spike protein. Soon after, Corbett and Graham at the NIAID verified that the S-2P protein generated potent antibodies in mice.

Kizzmekia S Corbett, Darin K Edwards, Sarah R Leist, Olubukola M Abiona, Seyhan Boyoglu-Barnum, Rebecca A Gillespie, Sunny Himansu, Alexandra Schäfer, Cynthia T Ziwawo, Anthony T DiPiazza, Kenneth H Dinnon, Sayda M Elbashir, Christine A Shaw, Angela Woods, Ethan J Fritch, David R Martinez, Kevin W Bock, Mahnaz Minai, Bianca M Nagata, Geoffrey B Hutchinson, Kai Wu, Carole Henry, Kapil Bahi, Dario Garcia-Dominguez, LingZhi Ma, Isabella Renzi, Wing-Pui Kong, Stephen D Schmidt, Lingshu Wang, Yi Zhang, Emily Phung, Lauren A Chang, Rebecca J Loomis, Nedim Emil Altaras, Elisabeth Narayanan, Mihir Metkar, Vlad Presnyak, Cuiping Liu, Mark K Louder, Wei Shi, Kwanyee Leung, Eun Sung Yang, Ande West, Kendra L Gully, Laura J Stevens, Nianshuang Wang, Daniel Wrapp, Nicole A Doria-Rose, Guillaume Stewart-Jones, Hamilton Bennett, Gabriela S Alvarado, Martha C Nason, Tracy J Ruckwardt, Jason S McLellan, Mark R Denison, James D Chappell, Ian N Moore, Kaitlyn M Morabito, John R Mascola, Ralph S Baric, Andrea Carfi, Barney S Graham.
SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine design enabled by prototype pathogen preparedness.
Nature, 2020. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2622-0.

Most Popular Now

Observational study identifies drug that improves …

Researchers at Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey's largest and most comprehensive health network, have utilized its statewide observational database of more than 5,0...

73,000 Scientists collaborate over new COVID-19 Da…

More than 73,000 users collaborate on new online platform set up by the European Open Science Cloud Initiative, where scientists share COVID-19 data and accelerate our un...

Antiviral used to treat cat coronavirus also works…

Researchers at the University of Alberta are preparing to launch clinical trials of a drug used to cure a deadly disease caused by a coronavirus in cats that they expect ...

Roche and Regeneron collaborate to significantly i…

Roche (SIX: RO, ROG; OTCQX: RHHBY) and Regeneron (NASDAQ: REGN) announced are joining forces in the fight against COVID-19 to develop, manufacture and distribute REGN-COV...

Search for COVID-19 drugs boosted by SARS discover…

An extensive search and testing of current drugs and drug-like compounds has revealed compounds previously developed to fight SARS might also work against COVID-19. Us...

Pfizer and BioNTech share positive early data on l…

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and BioNTech SE (Nasdaq: BNTX) shared additional Phase 1 safety and immunogenicity data from their ongoing U.S. study of the BNT162 mRNA-based vac...

Phase I clinical trial initiated for monoclonal an…

The first participants have been dosed in a Phase I trial of AZD7442, a combination of two monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) in development for the prevention and treatment of...

Europe's largest initiative launches to accelerate…

CARE (Corona Accelerated R&D in Europe) a new consortium supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) public-private partnership announced its launch to acceler...

Vitamin D deficiency may raise risk of getting COV…

In a retrospective study of patients tested for COVID-19, researchers at the University of Chicago Medicine found an association between vitamin D deficiency and the like...

Blocking cellular communication stops SARS-CoV-2

In the transmission of signals within the cell which, for example, stimulate cell growth or trigger metabolic processes, phosphate groups play an important biochemical ro...

Improving FDA's COVID-19 vaccine authorization and…

On March 28, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exercised its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) authority to allow the use of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of ...

Steroid found to improve survival of critically il…

A new international study published today has shown that treating critically ill patients with COVID-19 with the steroid hydrocortisone improves their chances of recovery...