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As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the need for a vaccine to prevent the spread of the flu-like virus grows. University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa scientist Axel Lehrer is among those helping in that global fight. He is working in collaboration with New Jersey-based biopharmaceutical company Soligenix, Inc. to develop potential coronavirus vaccines, including one for the novel COVID-19 disease.

“Our platform has a good chance because the vaccine we’re producing is something that’s thermostable, can be produced in mass quantities and can be shipped everywhere without the need for refrigeration,” said Lehrer, an assistant professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. “That’s a huge benefit in an outbreak scenario where you need to be able to quickly ship vaccines around the world.”

axel lehrer in the lab
Axel Lehrer in his lab at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Lehrer and his team of about a dozen lab colleagues in the Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology have previously demonstrated the feasibility of developing an Ebola virus vaccine. Using the same technology platform, they are hopeful their development for a COVID-19 vaccine will also prove to be successful.

In contrast to other coronavirus vaccines that use an RNA-based approach that is quicker to test in humans, the recombinant subunit vaccine Lehrer is developing takes a more conventional approach used for many proven vaccines currently on the market.

“We’re making antigen, the protein that will make you resistant to the virus. We make those antigens that will give a solid immune response. Our product will take between six to nine months to be ready for clinical trials, but the immune response you develop is much more potent (in comparison to RNA-based vaccines),” said Lehrer.

Lehrer believes the recombinant subunit vaccine is the right approach for COVID-19. “It can be used in any person, in immunocompromised people, in the elderly and in small children. The safety margin is very good and that’s why we believe it could be a major contribution to the field,” he said.

“It is rewarding to see ongoing work by JABSOM investigators and collaborators expanding on successful research on filovirus vaccines (protecting against viruses such as Ebola and Marburg virus) that may help us make unique life-saving contributions during this difficult time in healthcare,” said JABSOM Dean Jerris Hedges. “The prospect of a science lab in Hawaiʻi helping develop a vaccine amid the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to the importance of local research in Hawaiʻi.”

The next stage in the development process for the vaccine is to conduct test trials in small animals, which will commence in the next few weeks.

Along with Soligenix, Lehrer and his team are also working with Hawaii Biotech Inc., a Hawaiʻi-based subunit vaccine developer.

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