Five Things with Eric Weaver
The race is on to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. But work is also underway at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to find a better, longer-lasting vaccine for influenza, another global threat. Leading the way is Eric Weaver, associate professor of biological sciences. In this edition of Faculty 101, Dr. Weaver talks about his new research collaboration and why he’s hopeful about the future. | Show Notes: More about Eric Weaver ›› biosci.unl.edu/eric-weaver; more about the Virology Center ›› go.unl.edu/yeb7
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[00:00:00.640]A model of influenza, my daughter and I put together.
[00:00:03.770]Outside Eric Weaver's office is a project he worked on
[00:00:07.140]with his daughter for her elementary school science fair.
[00:00:10.850]These are proteins and they exist.
[00:00:12.450]Bunches of red and blue lollipops
[00:00:14.640]are sticking out of a large ball.
[00:00:16.770]They represent the sugarcoated protein spikes
[00:00:19.460]on the outside of the flu virus.
[00:00:25.200]If you look inside,
[00:00:26.950]we've got the eight nucleic RNA segment.
[00:00:30.110]The model represents a virus
[00:00:31.870]that triggers a potentially serious disease.
[00:00:39.500]In the United States, we see about anywhere
[00:00:41.770]from nine to 45 million illnesses with influenza every year.
[00:00:46.010]And that results in anywhere from 200 to 800,000
[00:00:49.790]hospitalizations and around 12 to 61,000 people dying
[00:00:54.850]from respiratory related illnesses
[00:00:56.840]due to influenza each year.
[00:00:59.240]Globally, it's about a billion cases
[00:01:02.120]of influenza every year.
[00:01:07.330]In his lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
[00:01:09.980]Weaver and his team are hard at work on research
[00:01:12.610]to develop a universal influenza vaccine.
[00:01:17.940]This is Faculty 101, five things about flu vaccines
[00:01:22.590]and what's ahead.
[00:01:26.210]The Morrison Center is home
[00:01:27.680]to the Nebraska Center for Virology and Eric Weaver's lab.
[00:01:31.900]So what we do is we come over here.
[00:01:35.220]Like any scientific lab, there are rows of bottles,
[00:01:38.120]hooded work benches and high tech tools for the job.
[00:01:41.930]A shaker incubator.
[00:01:43.880]So bacteria like to be warm and they like to be shaken.
[00:01:48.460]It makes them grow faster,
[00:01:49.780]makes them healthier.
[00:01:51.190]A machine that copies DNA.
[00:01:54.180]And they'll take a single copy
[00:01:55.680]and they'll multiply it billions, trillions of times.
[00:01:59.120]So this freezer is minus 80 degrees.
[00:02:02.150]And a freezer for storing bacteria and viruses.
[00:02:06.230]The bacteria can be put in a state of suspension
[00:02:11.650]The goal is to invent a long lasting
[00:02:13.910]universal influenza vaccine.
[00:02:17.220]Number one, a lesson in vaccines.
[00:02:22.140]They work by mimicking a viral
[00:02:23.910]or bacterial infection that tricks the body
[00:02:26.490]into developing immunity against the disease.
[00:02:29.410]Antigens stimulate the production of antibodies
[00:02:32.560]that recognize and destroy the invading germs.
[00:02:36.030]Traditional vaccines are made with forms of a virus,
[00:02:40.900]Weaver's research into a new type of vaccine
[00:02:43.660]and delivery system has shown promising results
[00:02:46.470]in testing with mice and swine.
[00:02:48.760]There's two main issues with the conventional vaccine.
[00:02:52.460]One is that it's very strain specific.
[00:02:54.340]So it has to be matched to whatever strain
[00:02:56.730]is circulating in the population.
[00:02:58.940]Sometimes they get that wrong and they have a mismatch.
[00:03:02.810]And then in that case, the vaccine efficacy
[00:03:05.070]can be pretty low.
[00:03:06.530]The other main reason that people forget about
[00:03:08.800]is that the actual immunity that you get wanes over time.
[00:03:15.340]So if you get vaccinated in October in April
[00:03:18.640]or may, you may no longer be protected
[00:03:21.110]even against that same strain.
[00:03:23.210]So it's very short term, very strain specific,
[00:03:26.750]and that's a major limitation
[00:03:28.040]of the current influenza vaccine.
[00:03:29.750]My lab is actively working on trying to produce
[00:03:35.437]a more universal flu vaccine.
[00:03:37.940]We take a bioinformatics approach
[00:03:41.460]to designing the imaging
[00:03:42.800]which is the component of the vaccine,
[00:03:44.860]that's gonna induce the immune response.
[00:03:46.960]And we're trying to design it
[00:03:48.390]so that it protects against
[00:03:50.040]the most number of strains in the population
[00:03:53.850]and gives you very broad levels of immunity.
[00:03:57.790]We're also looking at different platforms,
[00:03:59.500]different ways to deliver the vaccines
[00:04:01.760]so that we can induce strong T cell responses.
[00:04:05.060]When you do that, you create memory
[00:04:07.530]and then you create a longer lasting vaccine response.
[00:04:13.690]Ultimately, what we would love to have is a flu vaccine
[00:04:16.880]that was delivered in a pediatric vaccine
[00:04:20.490]that provided the foundation of immunity
[00:04:22.380]that could last for 20, 30, 40,
[00:04:24.550]maybe even 50 years before our booster was needed,
[00:04:28.010]and depending on the evolution of the virus.
[00:04:30.980]Number two, Weaver is part of a new research effort
[00:04:34.610]into a strategy that uses a plant based system
[00:04:37.700]for the vaccine, a multimillion dollar grant
[00:04:40.550]from the National Institutes of Health
[00:04:42.360]funds this collaborative approach to novel vaccine methods.
[00:04:46.430]With this grant we're actually using a plant virus
[00:04:50.820]to deliver the vaccine,
[00:04:52.470]as well as protein produced inside plants.
[00:04:55.870]So this is a collaboration
[00:04:58.630]between St Jude's Children's Research Hospital,
[00:05:02.070]Touro University in California
[00:05:04.700]and Kentucky Bioprocessing Corporation
[00:05:08.500]and the University of Nebraska.
[00:05:09.840]So we brought all this expertise together
[00:05:12.380]and we are going to be developing vaccines
[00:05:16.360]that are produced in plants.
[00:05:18.350]And Kentucky Bioprocessor is a leader in that field.
[00:05:22.730]They're the people that were responsible for Zapp,
[00:05:25.930]the treatment that was used early on
[00:05:27.750]in Ebola virus infections.
[00:05:29.550]There's two different strategies to this.
[00:05:31.660]One strategy is to take a plant virus
[00:05:33.900]called tobacco mosaic virus.
[00:05:36.020]And we're actually going to conjugate the vaccine
[00:05:38.350]to the outer coat of that virus.
[00:05:40.800]It actually will self assemble this way.
[00:05:43.520]And then we can deliver that as a vaccine for influenza.
[00:05:46.730]So we'll take the influenza genes
[00:05:49.080]and insert them into the tobacco mosaic virus, grow that.
[00:05:52.900]And the great thing about it
[00:05:53.910]is you can grow lots and lots of it.
[00:05:55.560]It's a plant based system.
[00:05:58.060]The other aspect of this,
[00:05:59.740]and that's where the kentucky Bioprocessing comes in,
[00:06:02.410]is they can take your hemagglutinin
[00:06:04.530]that you use in your influenza vaccine
[00:06:07.160]and express it in tobacco plants.
[00:06:09.200]And they can do this rapidly
[00:06:11.330]and they can get very high levels.
[00:06:12.880]And they did a trial where they produced 5 million doses
[00:06:16.330]in one month.
[00:06:17.600]So they can go from concept to product
[00:06:20.270]really, really fast.
[00:06:22.060]So that's what we're excited about
[00:06:24.910]and you know, the scalability of that,
[00:06:27.830]tenfold more, they're making 50 million doses in a month.
[00:06:32.500]So that's a very exciting platform
[00:06:34.140]and we're very happy to receive funding
[00:06:35.770]to explore that research.
[00:06:38.590]Number three, in the midst of the global
[00:06:41.130]coronavirus pandemic Weaver says,
[00:06:43.430]don't forget to get your flu shot,
[00:06:46.110]but he says, it's possible this could be
[00:06:48.360]a less severe flu season.
[00:06:50.910]Hopefully, with the face masks,
[00:06:54.370]with people using better protection, social distancing,
[00:06:59.050]it will mitigate a lot of the infections of influenza.
[00:07:01.807]They transmit on the same method.
[00:07:04.960]So it's likely that that'll have an impact on influenza.
[00:07:07.610]We may have one of our lowest levels of influenza spread
[00:07:11.710]that we've seen in in a hundred years.
[00:07:14.930]The other component of that is travel.
[00:07:17.900]People aren't traveling anymore.
[00:07:20.350]These viruses like influenza generally arise in Asia.
[00:07:24.760]They come across through Europe and then they transfer over
[00:07:27.950]into North America, and generally down in South America
[00:07:31.680]at the end of the season.
[00:07:33.410]So with travel bans and people not moving,
[00:07:36.970]it's likely we won't import viruses
[00:07:39.080]as frequently as we have in the past.
[00:07:42.340]Number four in the race to create a vaccine for COVID-19
[00:07:46.800]Weaver is encouraged by recent reports
[00:07:49.150]of experimental products
[00:07:50.460]developed by the companies Pfizer, and Moderna.
[00:07:55.080]The vaccines use genetic material called messenger RNA
[00:07:58.860]to trigger the immune response.
[00:08:00.920]But Weaver says traditional vaccines may still be needed
[00:08:04.090]in developing countries
[00:08:05.130]because they are less expensive to produce
[00:08:07.590]and easier to store and deliver.
[00:08:09.820]But I am very hopeful
[00:08:12.540]and likely these new novel vaccine methods
[00:08:18.680]like the mRNA
[00:08:20.140]or even DNA delivery systems will be the primary vaccines
[00:08:24.910]that we use in society.
[00:08:27.510]I still believe in the traditional vaccine platforms
[00:08:30.260]like purified protein
[00:08:31.850]or inactivated viruses,
[00:08:33.770]and it's likely that those will be effective as well.
[00:08:36.880]And hopefully we can produce those
[00:08:39.550]and deliver them worldwide.
[00:08:42.247]One of the things that we tend to forget
[00:08:43.802]is that health, our health is a global issue.
[00:08:48.380]And so we can vaccinate people in underdeveloped countries,
[00:08:52.280]it's gonna protect us as well.
[00:08:54.550]So this is a global issue,
[00:08:57.890]and we need to think of it in that term.
[00:09:01.310]And number five, vaccine research is important,
[00:09:05.480]but vaccines won't work if Americans refuse to get them.
[00:09:09.460]We all know in reality that vaccines save lives
[00:09:12.170]and they have done more for society and medicine
[00:09:14.820]than any other prevention,
[00:09:16.660]any other treatment ever developed.
[00:09:21.828]And I think it tends to be a lot about the urgency.
[00:09:26.010]I think people would actually be a little bit more
[00:09:29.800]prone to take a vaccine.
[00:09:32.510]If it could do things like get our economy going again,
[00:09:35.940]get us out, out of our homes and out from behind our masks,
[00:09:41.227]I think the American people
[00:09:42.610]or I think people in general would realize that logic.
[00:09:50.940]That's Faculty 101, five things with Eric Weaver,
[00:09:57.040]Faculty 101 is produced
[00:09:58.730]by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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