Engineered Red Blood Cells Could Develop New COVID-19 Vaccines

Human blood cells, SEM
Credit: Science Photo Library —STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/Getty Images

A technique developed at McMaster University in Canada involves engineering red blood cells to deliver virus-like particles and trigger the immune system to protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection, something the researchers believe could help develop new vaccines and therapies for a number of conditions.

An advantage of these erythrocyte-based virus like particles (Erythro-VLPs) is that they do not trigger excessive immune reactions, as they are biocompatible.

“This platform makes our own blood cells smart in many different ways,” explains Maikel Rheinstadter, lead author on the current paper and a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster.  “In this case it’s a vaccine.  We are using our own cells much like nano robots inside of our bodies and whenever they see a disease, they can fight it.”

This research is published in the journal PloS ONE. The same team, led by Rheinstadter, previously used this technique to create engineered red blood cells that can deliver drugs to different areas in the body to treat disease or infection.

In this study they applied their technique to targeting SARS-CoV-2. “We take red blood cells and remove everything from the inside. We then attach spike proteins to their outside to mimic a corona virus,” explains graduate student Isabella Passos-Gastaldo, a co-author on the paper, in a press statement.

This research has not yet reached human trials, but the efficacy of the Erythro-VLPs was tested in mice and found to produce antibodies within 14 days and activate the immune system without notable side effects.

“Current vaccine delivery methods often cause drastic immune system reactions and have short-lived responses,” says Rheinstadter.

“We have developed a method where we can trigger an immune response without the use of genetic material and yet we are able to synthesize these particles in a very short amount of time,” says Sebastian Himbert, first author on the study and a recent graduate student in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster.

Because of their biologic nature, the engineered cells are able to avoid excessive immune reactions or ‘rejection’ effects that are common with other vectors.

The team also thinks they are very versatile and could be used to create vaccines or treatments for other viruses or SARS-CoV-2 variants in the future.

“With a large number of similar viruses circulating in bats and camels, and the emergence of variants, the possibility of additional outbreaks poses major threats to global public health. The erythrocyte platform that we present in this work has therapeutic potential and can rapidly be adapted to different variants and viruses by embedding the corresponding antigenic proteins,” concludes the team.

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