Inside a Seattle lab working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine

‘We’ve put a lot of projects on hold so that we can focus on this.’

 

In a tall building on the outskirts of downtown Seattle, a group of scientists from the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design huddle in front of computers, concentrating on their screens. Using a special program, they’re tinkering with building blocks of proteins, taking the first of many steps to develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

Creating a working vaccine is challenging and will likely take over a year, at best. But with Seattle at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. — as of March 13, the state had seen 568 cases and 37 deaths, numbers almost certain to rise as more people are tested — this task is the top priority for the scientists. “We’ve put a lot of projects on hold so that we can focus on this,” said Brooke Fiala, a vaccine researcher who leads the institute’s nanoparticle laboratory. 

Promising proteins designed on a computer are then tested in the lab at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design. The coronavirus vaccine will consist of a nanoparticle, formed from many interlocking proteins.
Ian C Haydon/Institute for Protein Design

In order to fight the coronavirus, scientists from universities and drug companies around the world are developing vaccines, using a variety of methods. Some labs are manipulating the early stages of protein development, while others are working with dead versions of the virus. Fiala and her colleagues are taking a different approach: manufacturing nanoparticles to create a more efficient vaccine.

Vaccines expose the body to an antigen, which is a small dose of virus or bacteria parts. The antigens trigger an immune response: The body’s immune cells produce antibodies, which combat the invader and protect against further infection. There are several ways to create a vaccine. In one common method, for example, scientists weaken the virus so that it reproduces very poorly once inside the body, giving the immune system time to make antibodies.

In Fiala’s lab, scientists are instead attempting to form what is called a nanoparticle. The shape of this microscopic particle must allow for an antigen called a spike protein — the part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that allows it to infect human cells — to fuse to the outside. If all the pieces fit together properly, the resulting molecule should look like a spiky ball, with the nanoparticle at the core and the spike proteins protruding outward. Once perfected, this spiky ball can become a vehicle for introducing the viral proteins to human cells and stimulating the immune system.

The first step in making a nanoparticle vaccine involves designing a promising nanoparticle model using a computer, manufacturing the DNA that codes for its shape, and then transferring that DNA into E. coli bacteria. The bacteria follow the DNA’s instructions to form the correct protein. Researchers then burst open the bacteria and extract the newly made protein, which spontaneously folds into the desired nanoparticle — each piece of the molecule exactly where it should be. Finally, multiple spike proteins are attached to the outside of the nanoparticle, creating the spiky ball. The immune system reads repetitive arrangements like this as a sign of peril and responds by rapidly creating antibodies.

This type of vaccine is thought to be more powerful than other varieties; the nanoparticle is highly effective at stabilizing the spike proteins and inducing an immune response. And while it’s been in use since around the 1980s, engineering a nanoparticle on a computer is a big step forward. “The use of computational models to predict and design self-assembling proteins is a recent breakthrough in nanoparticle vaccine design,” said Emma Kate Loveday, a virologist at Montana State University.

It’s a complicated process, but after a recent success in generating a nanoparticle vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus, a contagious respiratory infection, Fiala is hopeful. “We’ve become quite practiced,” she said. “We’re very used to this process of taking those antigens and putting them on nanoparticles.” So far, they have ordered 18 different nanoparticle DNA sequences and are confident that one of these variations will eventually lead to a successful vaccine. 

In the upcoming months, the team hopes to get a vaccine to animal trials. If all goes well, the vaccine will then be tested in humans. Making sure it’s safe and effective enough for widespread use could take a year or longer, though. Science often appears to move at a frustratingly slow rate, especially when something as serious as the coronavirus is spreading so quickly, said Ian Haydon, the scientific communications manager for the Institute of Protein Design. “But science like this needs to move slowly in order to make the proper drugs to save lives.”

Helen Santoro is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....