Virus vector laboratory applies gene transfer technology to tackle corona pandemic

22 Jul 2020

Scientists and researchers are hard at work on solutions to overcome the COVID-19 disease and to manage the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This requires ready access to good research infrastructures: tools and equipment, data networks and databases, and open access research materials and services that facilitate research and promote research collaboration.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that even in exceptional circumstances, it is possible to mount an effective response – provided that competent staff and the necessary international and national preparedness are in place. The foundation for this lies in the long-term development of research infrastructures. Indeed, research infrastructures funded by the Academy of Finland are crucial to the science community ’s efforts to understand the characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the effects of the epidemic.

How have these research infrastructures been used during the corona pandemic, and how will they be used in different fields of science and research as we move forward? We are publishing a series of short pieces to shed light on these questions.

Virus vector laboratory applies gene transfer technology to tackle corona pandemic

The virus vector laboratory is one of the internationally most renowned research centres in its field. There are just a handful of academic laboratories in the world that specialise in gene transfer technology.

Based at the University of Eastern Finland, the National Virus Vector Laboratory has been under constant development since its launch at the beginning of 2000, says head of the laboratory, Academy Professor Seppo Ylä-Herttuala. Infrastructure funding from the Academy of Finland has been central to raising the laboratory’s technological level.

Ylä-Herttuala is clear that high-level research infrastructures are crucial to remaining at the forefront of research. He and his team have been successful with many of their ERC funding applications for research projects in gene transfer technology.

“For Finnish science to remain internationally competitive, it is absolutely imperative that we have in place a high-level research infrastructure. My research team would have had no chance of getting funding if we didn’t have effective research infrastructures that allow us to put into practice the research plans we propose.”

The long-term commitment to developing high-level research infrastructures has also created the sound basis needed for an effective response in these exceptional circumstances.

“If we’d had to develop our existing research infrastructure under the current conditions of the corona pandemic, starting from scratch, that would just not have been possible. This is why it really pays to invest in basic research and in research infrastructures,” Ylä-Herttuala says.

Given its up-to-date research infrastructure, the National Virus Vector Laboratory has in place all the technology and the production systems that it needs to conduct coronavirus research. It’s simply a matter of turning the focus from therapeutic genes for cardiovascular and cancer diseases to a protein suitable as a vaccine candidate for the coronavirus.

“We’re combatting the corona pandemic from a completely new direction. We’re not looking to develop a traditional living attenuated vaccine, but applying the gene transfer technology that we’ve been developing at the virus vector laboratory for the past 20 years. The idea is to transfer the coronavirus spike protein onto the nasopharynx mucous membrane,” Ylä-Herttuala explains.

This is a quick and straightforward way to proceed compared to traditional vaccine development: “Gene transfer technologies are a fast-track option when we’re faced with a surprising, highly contagious and rapidly spreading pandemic of which we have only limited earlier experience. We don’t need to have a pathogenic virus, only the key protein against which protective immunity is produced,” Ylä-Herttuala continues.

He says that the aerosol method of gene transfer is particularly well-suited for application in the nasopharynx.

“This is an easier product to make than one that is injected into the body. The spray will simply be deposited in the respiratory tract. This is one of the advantages we hope will work in our favour.”

The speed at which a treatment can be developed does not depend on the laboratory’s know-how. Ultimately the schedule is down to the results of animal testing and the number of efficacy and safety tests conducted with patients.

Ylä-Herttuala is keen to remind, however, that at some point there will probably be a second wave of the pandemic: “Everything we’re doing at the moment is geared to making sure that if need be, we will be prepared and ready to respond.”

Read more: High-level research infrastructures support COVID-19 research:

More information

In addition to the research infrastructures introduced here, there are a number of other national and international research infrastructures that provide services for COVID-19 research. One useful source of further information is the ESFRI website.

The Academy of Finland provides funding for the acquisition and establishment of nationally and internationally significant research infrastructures that promote high-quality scientific research and for strengthening and expanding existing services.

  • Merja Särkioja, Senior Science Adviser, firstname.lastname(at), tel. + 358 295 335 111

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