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Manufacturing unit could develop new vaccines and treatments for COVID-19

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Researchers at the University of Sheffield are developing new ways to manufacture vaccines and treatments against COVID-19.

The project will boost the UK’s and the rest of the world’s ability to rapidly develop new vaccines in response to new variants of Covid-19, if needed, and also future pandemics.

In non-emergency times, the new production technology will give developers and manufacturers access to the state-of-the-art processes needed to produce new vaccines and treatments for other major diseases such as cancer, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular conditions and autoimmune diseases much faster.

Project lead Dr Zoltán Kis, from the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, said the programme is focusing on developing messenger RNA-based vaccines and treatments.

“The vaccines produced for Covid-19 have shown us what is possible using RNA technology. In one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of our generation, RNA technology has demonstrated the ability to change the timeline for developing and delivering a vaccine from years to months.

“This is a versatile and transformative technology that can be used to develop and mass-produce vaccines and treatments for other diseases. To achieve this, we need to ensure that researchers across the globe have access to the very latest, state-of-the-art RNA manufacturing processes to support their research, development and large-scale production programmes.

“We are grateful for receiving funding via the Wellcome Leap R3 program, and this allows us to develop and to innovate those RNA manufacturing processes here at the University of Sheffield.

“By establishing a vaccine production process, which can then be transferred to different parts of the world, we can help more researchers, developers and manufacturers use this revolutionary RNA technology.

“This will facilitate the rapid development and mass-production of vaccines against a wide range of diseases, such as Covid-19 and its variants, seasonal influenza, Rabies, Zika, Human Papillomavirus, Hepatitis C, Malaria, HIV, immune disorders and cancers as well as against currently unknown, future viral targets.”

These mRNA vaccines – such as those developed for Covid-19 – have the potential to be produced much quicker than traditional vaccines. In the case of Covid-19, the development of an mRNA-based vaccine took just 63 days from release of the virus sequence to the first dosing in humans, leading to accelerated clinical trials and ultimately billions of doses being manufactured.

This rapid development was made possible thanks to RNA technology. Unlike traditional vaccine manufacturing techniques, RNA vaccines shift the most difficult and complex parts of manufacturing a vaccine to the human body, by teaching our cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response rather than delivering the protein itself.

The development of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) ensures that these instructions can arrive intact to our cells – a critical element of mRNA vaccine delivery and effectiveness.

Despite being used to rapidly develop a vaccine for Covid-19, the discovery and development of new RNA-based vaccines and treatments for other viruses and diseases are being slowed down. This is due to researchers having limited or no access to mRNA manufacturing processes or the knowledge and resources to make them.

Now, following funding from Wellcome Leap, Dr Kis will establish an mRNA vaccine production unit at the University of Sheffield that will develop the new manufacturing processes that researchers and manufacturers need to deploy new mRNA vaccines and treatments.

The new vaccine production unit at Sheffield will form a central part of Wellcome Leap’s R3 program, which is aiming to establish a network of vaccine manufacturing facilities across the world to increase the number of RNA-based treatments that are designed, developed and produced each year. The network will also be capable of rapidly producing new vaccines as and when needed in response to future pandemics.

Dr Kis said: “Covid-19 has shown us how important it is to be prepared so we can respond to pandemics quickly. By improving the way we can make vaccines and by distributing these production processes across the globe we will be able to respond to future pandemics much faster and a lot more effectively.

“In non-pandemic times, these production processes implemented across the globe can be used to produce vaccine and therapeutic candidates that we desperately need against a wide range of diseases.”

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