Collaborative COVID-19 lockdown effort delivers major boost for vaccine innovation in Bristol
21 October 2021
Faster vaccine development could be a step closer thanks to £4 million investment to Imophoron Ltd, a Bristol University biotech start-up developing a novel, next generation rapid-response vaccine platform called ADDomer™. Imophoron will use the investment to bring ADDomer vaccines to clinical stage, initially targeting three viruses, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), COVID-19, and mosquito-borne Chikungunya.
ADDomer is a new type of vaccine that can be produced and stored at warmer temperatures, removing the need for refrigeration, in a major advance in vaccine technology. For comparison, COVID-19 vaccines by AstraZeneca, Moderna and BioNTech need to be cooled at 4°, -20° or even -80°. ADDomer, engineered using a synthetic thermostable protein scaffold, could revolutionise the way vaccines are designed, produced and administered.
Early in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to circulate around the globe, entailing major disruption to communities and economies. In March 2020, the UK went into its first lockdown and Bristol turned into a ghost town. University research was put on hold, laboratories closed and people stayed at home amidst uncertainty.
This was when Frederic Garzoni, CEO of Imophoron Ltd, reprised his old role, to produce high-value protein reagents for scientists who carried on trying to tackle the global health crisis. Working with Bristol scientists, Fred developed within weeks a COVID-19 vaccine utilising Imophoron’s innovative ADDomer vaccine technology.
Professor Adam Finn, Director of Pfizer’s new Vaccine Centre of Excellence in Bristol, recalled: “These were momentous times. Worrisome, no doubt, but scientifically extremely motivating. We had a new, deadly pathogen, SARS-CoV-2, sweeping the globe. Scientists everywhere mounted an unprecedented effort to decipher SARS-CoV-2 and the disease, in record time.”
In Bristol, led by Professor Finn, the University COVID-19 Emergency Research group, Bristol UNCOVER, emerged, comprising clinicians, virologists,chemists, biologists and other academics. Professor Finn explained: “In the clinic, we needed fragments of SARS-CoV-2,so-called antigens, to develop tests to detect antibodies in the blood of people who had contracted the virus.”
Imre Berger, Director of Bristol’s Max Planck Centre for Minimal Biology, said: “When Adam called, my core team members immediately volunteered for this task. We joined Bristol UNCOVER and produced what our colleagues needed in our protein expression facility. Fred had been our facility manager before we founded Imophoron Ltd. We needed him back now, and he came."
Fred Garzoni added: “There was no question that Imophoron joined the effort of Bristol UNCOVER. I had worked with Imre for many years, managing the facility when we were still in France. We had discovered a thermostable scaffold, the ADDomer. The ADDomer is uniquely suited as a vaccine platform to combat infectious diseases. I came to Bristol in 2017, enabled by a Talent and Mobility award from BrisSynBio, the University’s UKRI-funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre, and set up Imophoron in the UK to produce thermostable vaccines to combat tropical infectious diseases such as Chikungunya.”
Working at the University with Bristol UNCOVER provided a unique opportunity not only to supply Bristol UNCOVER scientists with the reagents they required, but also to test the ADDomer technology and develop, as fast as possible, an effective COVID-19 vaccine, different from any other vaccine developed and deployed to date.
“We had access to everything and everybody we needed through Bristol UNCOVER” said Fred Garzoni. “Colleagues including Mick Bailey, Jamie Mann, Joe Roe, David Morgan and their incredibly hard-working teams at the Vet School and the ASU were thrilled to help develop a completely novel type of COVID-19 vaccine.” Together, the scientists put the ADDomer vaccine candidate, designed by Fred, to work.
Before using animal models, the design was validated by cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM), a powerful imaging technique brought to Bristol by Christiane Schaffitzel, Professor of Biochemistry and also part of Bristol UNCOVER.
“Cryo-EM depicts particles at near atomic resolution” explained Professor Schaffitzel. “Seeing Fred’s vaccine design in such detail gave us confidence that we were on the right track.”
Critically, this imaging technique depends on powerful computation. As the pandemic unfolded, Oracle, a key collaborator in the ADDomer vaccine development programe, provided access to their high-performance cloud infrastructure. The Cryo-EM work, accelerated by Oracle Cloud, was instrumental to move the COVID-19 vaccine design forward rapidly to real life-trials in animal models at the pace required in a pandemic.
Fast forward to today. The work carried out during lockdown highlighted Imophoron’s ability, even under adverse conditions, to rapidly generate vaccine candidates with the ADDomer platform within weeks, suitable for pandemics such as COVID-19. In preclinical models, the ADDomer COVID-19 vaccine, induced strong immune responses, with the potential to prevent disease progression, but critically, also to interrupt transmission.
The Bristol UNCOVER work revealed that the ADDomer COVID-19 vaccine can be delivered by various administration routes, including intranasal, which would end the need for trained healthcare professionals to administer the vaccine, reducing the cost and complexity of rolling out a pandemic vaccine programme.
Effective and simple manufacturing, and thermostability sets this vaccine platform apart from others including mRNA based vaccines, which has become one of today’s leading type of vaccines. Imophoron’s vaccine candidates would allow global distribution with no cold chain needed, worldwide. Today’s Imophoron funding announcement to advance ADDomer vaccines to the clinic, is a major boost for vaccine innovation in Bristol and beyond.
“I realise how difficult the lockdowns have been for everyone,” said Fred Garzoni. “Many people have lost loved ones, had mental health issues and are still recovering. For us, however, it was probably the most captivating time in our lives as scientists, and for Imophoron it made the difference. The sense of purpose, the incentive, the focus, and the shared success. I can only thank everybody involved for that.”
About Professor Adam Finn
Adam Finn (@adamhfinn) is Professor of Paediatrics at Bristol Medical School, Director of the Bristol Vaccine Centre, a member of the UK Department of Health and Social Care Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), chair of the WHO Europe Technical Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (ETAGE) and a member of the WHO SAGE Working Group on COVID-19 vaccines. Adam has been a regular contributor during the COVID-19 crisis in many media outlets including the BBC, The Guardian and the New York Times.
About Professor Christiane Schaffitzel
Professor Christiane Schaffitzel (@Berger_labs) is Wellcome Trust investigator, academic lead of the Wellcome/GW4 Centre for cryo-electron microscopy, and co-ordinator of the international Horizon Europe ADDovenom consortium project to develop powerful new treatments against snakebite, and was named Bristol Post’s coolest person in the city in 2020 for her COVID-19 discoveries.
About Professor Imre Berger
Professor Imre Berger (@MaxPlanckBris) is also Director of the Bristol Synthetic Biology Centre and Co-Director of the Bristol BioDesign Institute which focuses on biomolecular design and engineering in synthetic biology. He is co-founder of vaccine innovator Imophoron Ltd, and recently co-founded Halo Therapeutics Ltd to develop pan-coronavirus antivirals. He is partner in the EPSRC Innovative Future Vaccine Manufacturing Hub.
Key facts: (source: World Health Organisation)
- COVID-19 is a global pandemic. It is an infectious disease that has already affected 219 million people world-wide with 4.6 million deaths (as at 02.10.2021) .
- COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2)
- SARS-CoV-2 has been preceded by outbreaks caused by pathogenic coronaviruses SARS 1 and MERS (for middle eastern respiratory syndrome).
- Due to the large number of people infected, SARS-CoV-2 keeps evolving, resulting in variants of concern (VOCs) some of which are more infectious and spread faster.
- Currently deployed vaccines to combat COVID-19 comprise mainly mRNA vaccines (Moderna, BioNTech), adenovirus vectored vaccines (AstraZeneca, J&J, Gamaleya), inactivated whole virion vaccines (Coromavac, Sinopharm, Bharat) and adjuvanted recombinant spike protein vaccines (Novavax).
- The disease originated probably in Wuhan late 2019, and then spread over the globe.
- The COVID-19 pandemic already caused severe damage for communities and economies world-wide.
About Imophoron Ltd – innovative vaccine company
Bristol start-up Imophoron’s ambition is to bring about a revolution in the fight against deadly pathogens and to tackle current challenges unmet by the vaccine industry with Imophoron’s next-generation vaccine development platform. Imophoron is winner of the 2019 Launch Great West Global Good Award. When the pandemic crisis started, Imophoron’s CEO, Fred Garzoni, rejoined Professor Berger’s group at University of Bristol to produce reagents for the scientists in the Bristol UNCOVER group, and to develop an ADDomer based COVID-19 vaccine.
About the Bristol UNCOVER Group
UNCOVER is an emergency research group at the University of Bristol committed to tackling COVID-19. It is led by Professor Adam Finn and formed spontaneously when the COVID-19 pandemic crisis broke out. UNCOVER scientists comprise clinicians, immunologists, chemists, biologists, structural biologists, microbiologists and virologists, and many other scientific fields. UNCOVER scientists worked through crisis and lockdowns to decipher mechanisms of the virus and the disease and find potential cures.
ADDomer is a registered trademark of Imophoron Ltd. Oracle, Java, and MySQL are registered trademarks of Oracle Corporation.