FARGO — A startup firm in Fargo called Biomed Protection has a grant to develop a platform for detecting mutations in viruses and predicting the success of vaccines that could be used to rapidly develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Biomed Protection was awarded a $1.4 million grant from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to develop an online platform, using technology that has proven effective in detecting mutations in influenza viruses and predicting vaccine effectiveness.
The grant for the project means that candidate vaccines to protect against COVID-19 will be tested and manufactured in Fargo as early as December.
The technology was developed by Slobodan Paessler, a leading infectious disease researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he also is a director of Galveston National Laboratory. BiomedProtection, a Fargo firm, is co-founded and managed by Isabelle Chambers.
“This is an exciting opportunity to grow North Dakota's biotech industry while playing an essential role in mitigating the pandemic,” Chambers said Tuesday, Aug. 4.
The state grant, she added, will help to quickly develop the online testing platform, which Paessler and Chambers said could be ready by December.
"We look forward to developing new vaccines to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) using electronic biology, a powerful approach to understanding how biological molecules interact," said Chambers, a recent high school graduate who has studied biology, immunology and virology at North Dakota State University since the age of 15.
Major pharmaceutical companies already have COVID-19 vaccines in development, Paessler said. But what are regarded as leading vaccine candidates target the virus’s whole spike protein — the means it attaches to human cells, a method that is both risky and comes with drawbacks.
Also, he said, the leading vaccine candidates are based on the original strain of the virus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, but the virus has since mutated.
The risks and drawbacks are significant enough, Paessler said, that those candidate vaccines could fail.
If so, Biomed Protection’s method of detecting mutations in real time and predicting a vaccine’s effectiveness would enable the company, in partnership with Aldevron, a biotechnology firm based in Fargo, to rapidly develop and produce a vaccine for COVID-19, he said.
Aldevron develops and manufactures plasmid DNA, enzymes and proteins and antibodies for the biotechnology industry.
“This is coming from our flu work five or six years ago,” Paessler said. His method detects and analyzes functional virus changes at the subatomic level using electronic biology, enabling researchers to monitor mutations more quickly and accurately than conventional methods, he said.
“For us, even a single mutation can matter,” Paessler said. “We have documented absolute precision for our platform for flu.”
Conventional methods of tracking changes in the flu virus have not been very effective, although they remain in wide use, apparently because the World Health Organization and other agencies are comfortable relying on certain labs and certain companies, Paessler said.
“We still have no good method of deciding which candidate to use,” he said of flu vaccines.
Mutations in the flu virus — or “drift” — also occurs in coronaviruses, and the strain that produces COVID-19 likely will remain within human populations for years to come, he said.
“It’s not going to disappear, unfortunately,” Paessler said. He believes his “revolutionary” method can perform better in tracking and developing vaccines for influenza and coronaviruses.
Biomed Protection uses its proprietary platform based on electronic biology, called wEB FLU, for real-time monitoring of evolving influenza viruses and for assessing and predicting flu vaccine efficacy.
“It’s also real-time, which is so important,” said Chambers, who is the daughter of Michael Chambers, Aldevron's co-founder and top executive. Biomed Protection’s technology uses artificial intelligence, deep learning and electronic biology for automated prediction of cellular interactions to guide vaccine development.
WEB FLU successfully predicted flu vaccine efficacy in the past and correctly predicted mutations that made avian H5N1 flu viruses more infectious in humans and infectiousness of pandemic pH1N1 viruses in 2009, results that have been published in scientific journals.
The goal is to have the online platform finished in a matter of weeks. “Some optimization will be necessary as we go,” Paessler said. “It should be standing in three or four weeks,” a process that has been accelerated by the grant from North Dakota.
Early testing of the technology in mice and hamsters at the Galveston National Laboratory is expected to conclude in December, enabling Biomed Protection to test and develop vaccine candidates at Aldevron, he said.