Axel Lehrer

Axel Lehrer

Researchers at UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine have developed a vaccine candidate that could rapidly increase immunity to the novel coronavirus in pre-clinical trials. 

Dr. Axel Lehrer, in collaboration with New Jersey-based biopharmaceutical company Soligenix Inc. and Hawaii Biotech Inc., is working on developing potential coronavirus vaccines, including one for COVID-19. 

Lehrer is working with a dozen colleagues from the Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology. They are using the same technology platform that was used to develop an Ebola virus vaccine a few years ago. 

What sets Lehrer and his team’s research apart is that the vaccine they are producing can be made in mass quantities without the need for refrigeration. 

“We’ve already shown that our vaccine candidate can neutralize Sars-Coronavirus2, therefore it could actually be used very rapidly in controlling the current pandemic,” Lehrer said. 

The vaccine that Lehrer and his team are developing is antigen-based instead of RNA-based. By making the vaccine antigen-based, the immune response will be much stronger in comparison to the other vaccines. 

A recombinant subunit vaccine, a vaccine that involves insertion of the DNA that encodes an antigen, creates an immune response that expresses the antigen in cells and purifies them. 

The antigen they are developing is a protein that will make people resistant to the virus once taken. This type of vaccine has a high safety margin, meaning that it can be used in any person; from immunocompromised people to elderly and small children. 

The vaccine candidate has successfully demonstrated the ability to start a balanced antibody response, which is necessary for clearing viral infections. During prototype testing, Lehrer and his team detected antibody responses as early as 7 days after the first vaccination. 

Lehrer predicts that the vaccine will take between 6 to 9 months to be ready for clinical trials. They will conduct the preliminary testing trials that will start in the next few weeks. 

“It seems very likely that our approach will be successful,” Lehrer said. “Others also work on candidates that are quite similar. However, we believe that through our collaborations we will be able to develop a product with very positive storage conditions that will allow widespread use.”

Managing Editor

Gabrielle Parmelee is a senior double majoring in English and Spanish at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She graduated from Hazen High School in 2017 in Renton, Washington State. Her favorite pastime is hiking with her dog, Nessie.