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
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.