Triangle biotech firm developing COVID-19 vaccine for seniors

MORRISVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- This week was dominated by nearly non-stop vaccine news as journalists chronicled a crucial week that will go down as one of the most significant in American history.

There are high hopes for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, authorized by the FDA last week, and the ones expected to come quickly behind it.

But even though some vaccines have emerged as early candidates, the research isn't stopping. Triangle biotech firm Heat Biologics is focusing its vaccine candidate on one of the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19: the elderly. Though the trial is still in pre-clinical animal studies, founder Jeff Wolf said they hope to begin human trials in 2021.

"Our focus is to combine our vaccine with any approved vaccine to provide an additional layer of protection to elderly patients," Wolf said.

Wolf said just like there are now flu vaccines specifically for seniors, his company is developing a senior-focused vaccine for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

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According to Wolf, the COVID-19 vaccines rolling out in America right now only concentrate on one area of the immune system--antibodies to the virus. He said that's where his company's research comes into the picture. The Heat Biologics vaccine attempts to activate another part of the immune system known as T-cells, a specific kind of cell in the body that is programmed to kill viruses and cells infected with viruses. T-cells hang around the body longer than antibodies, and therefore present an opportunity for longer-lasting immunity.

It's worth noting, however, that some experts believe Pfizer's vaccine--and others like it--are also good at recruiting a T-cell response.

"It turns out with COVID-19, you need to activate both arms of the immune system, both the T-cell and the antibody arm, and we're very good at activating T-cells, as we've seen in our oncology trials," Wolf said, referencing Heat's success with immunotherapy for cancer treatment, which involves using the body's T-cells to fight off cancer cells.

Wolf, who believes a combination of T-cell and antibody activation will be more effective for seniors and others at risk, said, "So just like elderly patients may need multiple vaccines to protect against the flu, we feel that elderly patients may need multiple vaccines to protect against COVID-19."

Heat Biologics' vaccine has yet to be tested in humans, so it's not clear at this time whether it will provide enhanced protection for these vulnerable populations.

Wolf said as far as he knows, there is no other firm researching and trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine specifically for seniors and others at high risk. But in the fight against the pandemic there are really no competitors anyway.

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"We're rooting for all of the vaccine companies to move their vaccines forward as quickly as they can. We need to do whatever we can to defeat this pandemic. And our goal is to work with any approved vaccine to provide an additional layer of protection, this T-cell protection which is extremely important to patients," Wolf said.

So add Heat Biologics to the growing list of Triangle firms, institutions, and non-profits that are on the cutting edge in the technology battle against the coronavirus.
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