Birmingham researchers lead the way in COVID-19 vaccine development

2020 is the year of the epidemiologist. Photo via @nci on Unsplash

If you’re spending much time online these days, you’re probably seeing a whole flood of information about potential COVID-19 vaccines. Southern Research is helping lead the way from right here in Birmingham, and they’re getting closer every day. Here’s what you need to know.

The Players

Leading the way from the Magic City. Photo via Southern Research on Facebook

Three main players are involved in this project: Birmingham-based Southern Research, New York City-based Tonix Pharmaceuticals and the University of Alberta.

Southern Research has been taking on some of the world’s hardest problems since 1941. They’ve created seven drugs that are helping win the war on cancer, led the way in HIV treatment and a whole lot more.

Their infectious disease team has been working around-the-clock these past several months to develop drugs and vaccines to help fight COVID-19.

Tonix Pharmaceuticals is an integrated biotechnology company which not only seeks to address the unmet needs of patients, but also some of the world’s greatest public health challenges—does a certain pandemic come to mind?

Some of Tonix’s work involves repurposing and reformulating drugs, which is how they developed this project. One of their research programs centered around developing a smallpox vaccine that could be part of a biodefense strategy.

While Tonix is still pursuing that route, their work with Southern Research has involved rapidly modifying that original vaccine to become a potential durable vaccine for COVID-19.

The Timeline

It will be a happy, happy day when these vials are being shipped to medical facilities all over the world. Photo via Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Southern Research announced its strategic partnership with Tonix Pharmaceuticals in February 2020. Their main goal was to support the development of a vaccine, TNX-1800, against the COVID-19.

In July 2020, they announced an expansion on their current efforts that would involve studying the role that T cells (a central part of the immune system) may play in the development of a vaccine.

Tonix CEO and President Seth Lederman, M.D., explained why they chose this route for research:

“The features of a protective immune response to SARS-CoV-2 remain unknown.

But since SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, we believe that T cell responses, in particular T Helper Type 1, or TH1 responses, will play an important if not dominant role in protecting against serious illness from COVID-19.”

We like the sound of that.

The Latest

Saving lives one study at a time. Photo via @scienceinhd on Unsplash

In a press release on November 16, Tonix Pharmaceuticals announced preliminary results following vaccination of non-human primates with TNX-1800.

“We are pleased that all eight animals vaccinated with TNX-1800 manifested ‘takes’, a skin reaction which is a validated biomarker of functional T cell immunity, and that vaccination was associated with neutralizing antibodies in each case.”

Seth Lederman, M.D., President and CEO of Tonix Pharmaceuticals

If you’re not an expert in immunology research, never fear. Basically, researchers want to see a reaction from T cells. Why? Well, other vaccines, such as horsepox, that elicit a strong T cell response have been established to provide long-term, durable immunity (meaning, once you’re vaccinated, you’re protected for years or even for life) and to block forward transmission. 

A marker of functional T cell immunity is a skin condition called “takes,” which all eight animals vaccinated with TNX-1800 manifested. Hint: that’s great news for Southern Research and their partners—and all of us.

What’s Next

vaccine
Keep your distance and wear your masks—a vaccine is coming, but it’s not quite here yet. Photo via @cdc on Unsplash

According to the most recent press release, this group’s goal is to produce a vaccine that will provide long-term immunity with a single dose. As you can imagine, single-dose vaccines are ideal in situations where distribution needs to happen quickly (ahem, COVID-19).

They’re developing TNX-1800 with efficiency in mind, and believe it can be readily scaled up for manufacturing. Another pro? It currently does not require a costly and cumbersome cold chain for distribution and storage.

Dr. Lederman said that the recent positive results have encouraged them to advance TNX-1800 to human Phase 1 trials in 2021—which, if you’re like me, you may have forgotten is only a month and a half away.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on this one, and cheering along our brilliant Birmingham researchers along the way.

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  • A Birmingham transplant who can usually be found hitting a new hiking trail or restaurant opening when she's not writing stories and snapping photos for Bham Now.