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An Israeli research team’s mission to find a peptide vaccine for COVID-19

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Head of Bar-Ilan University’s Lab for the BioComputing of Complex Diseases Dr. Milana Frenkel-Morgenstern says the team’s research could be useful for developing a potential universal vaccine against all the coronaviruses including the various new strains

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Although there is no vaccine for the coronavirus yet, researchers from Bar-Ilan University are on a mission to find one. 

A research team from the university recently identified a set of potential immunodominant epitopes of the SARS-CoV-2 proteome.

Epitopes are small proteins that make up short chains of amino acids known as peptides. 

The findings could be game-changer when it comes to developing a peptide vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 infections even if it mutates. This can then stop the COVID-19 outbreak and future pandemics caused by coronaviruses.

The head of Bar-Ilan University’s Lab for the BioComputing of Complex Diseases Dr. Milana Frenkel-Morgenstern, who led the research, explained to IsraelNewsStand that Immunodominant Epitopes “are antigenic determinants that can most easily be recognized by the immune system.” 

Antigenic determinants form the part of an antigen that is recognized by the immune system and immunodominant epitopes “can generate both humoral as well as cell-mediated immunity.”

The humoral immune system is a part of the immune system, which defends the body against invading organisms and other foreign material, while cell-mediated immunity is a type of immune response that is produced by the direct action of immune cells.

Asked about how these findings can help with developing a peptide-based vaccine for COVID-19, Frenkel-Morgenstern explained  that designing a peptide vaccine, a variety of considerations need to be made. 

“First of all, is the identification of immunodominant epitopes that are capable of inducing a protective immune response in terms of humoral immunity and/or cell-mediated immunity against the desired antigen,” she said, 

“In this study, seven potential immunodominant epitopes were identified based on their higher conservancy, higher global population coverage, and significant interaction” with complex proteins that play a key role in the adaptive branch of the immune system, “known as MHC class I and class II alleles.”

According to Frenkel-Morgenstern, these epitopes also have a low risk of being allergen, toxic, or generating any autoimmune reactions. 

“Therefore,” she continued. “These seven immunodominant epitopes could potentially effective vaccine candidates that can activate both antibody and cell-mediated immune responses in humans, and designing a peptide vaccine using these immunodominant epitopes could control the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Frenkel-Morgenstern (fourth from left) and the Bar-Ilan University research team.
(Credit: Supplied)

Addressing the research process of finding the epitopes and the inspiration behind the research,  Frenkel-Morgenstern told IsraelNewsStand that vaccination is an effective way to improve public health by building up adaptive immunity to a target pathogen. 

“However, it takes considerable time to screen vaccine targets for clinical validation and the production of a vaccine,” she continued. “Advances in bioinformatics and next-generation sequencing technology, the immunoinformatics approach can minimize the time for screening antigens from protein sequences of pathogens and offer advantages in the search for potential new vaccine targets. 

“Therefore, we developed an extensive immunoinformatics based computational approach to mining the proteome of SARS-CoV-2 to identify the immunodominant epitopes,” she added.

Discussing how a peptide-based vaccine would work against a virus like COVID-19, she said that peptide vaccines can be composed of one or more “viral epitopes” and once administered, they “elicit protective immunity against the virus. 

“Peptides used in these vaccines are short sequences that are synthesized to form an immunogenic peptide molecule representing the specific epitopes of an antigen,” she explained. “As the epitopes are the antigenic determinants from the larger viral proteins, these peptides are considered sufficient for activation of the proper cellular and humoral immune responses,” she said.

Frenkel-Morgenstern also pointed out that peptide vaccines can be used for the induction of broad-spectrum immunity against multiple serological variants or viral strains “by formulating multiple non-contiguous immunodominant epitopes conserved between different viral serovars/strains. 

“Therefore, a peptide-based vaccine could be an effective strategy for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.

Frenkel-Morgenstern stressed that the immunodominant epitopes identified in this study are highly exclusive to SARS-CoV peptides. 

“Moreover, we did not find any point mutations in the mentioned seven potentially immunodominant epitopes from any SARS-CoV-2 isolates from different geographic locations,” she explained. 

The immunodominant epitopes are important for generating humoral and cell-mediated immunity in humans against a broad range of coronaviruses.

“Therefore, it could be useful for developing a potential universal vaccine against all the coronaviruses including the various new strains,” she concluded.

The computational approaches used by the team of researchers could be a benchmark for the identification of additional immunodominant epitopes of COVID19.

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