The coronavirus is rapidly changing. This Fargo startup zeroes in on mutations and vaccine response
Biomed Protection has an online analytical tool to evaluate a vaccine's effectiveness against coronavirus mutations, which could help vaccine makers respond to the rapidly changing virus. The firm also is testing some of its own vaccine candidates that could be developed in North Dakota.
FARGO — Health providers are in a race with the mutating coronavirus that could evolve in ways that allow it to escape vaccine protection.
Tracking mutations involving the spike protein of the coronavirus — the site that attaches to human cells and the primary target of vaccines — and determining whether vaccines remain protective usually involves painstaking laboratory research.
But a Fargo biotechnology startup company, Biomed Protection , offers a “real time” alternative method that uses computer modeling analysis that is available through an online tool.
The analytical tool has previously shown effectiveness in determining the effectiveness of flu vaccines, which must deal with constantly evolving strains of the influenza virus.
A team of researchers that has developed the Biomed Protection technology has published its findings , and the firm is in discussion with a couple of companies that are interested in using the method in developing vaccines or treatments for COVID-19 and other diseases, said Slobodon Paessler, a molecular virologist who helped develop the technology and the founder and chief executive of Biomed Protection.
“I expect commercial usage of that pretty soon,” he said Monday, Feb. 1. “We don’t claim it’s solving the problem or it’s the only thing you can do. The reality is it’s difficult to get information in real time,” an advantage the online tool offers, he said.
“It looks like we’re getting good data so far,” Paessler added.
That speed is important given the rapidly mutating virus — a phenomenon that likely will accelerate as the virus is subjected to greater pressures from vaccines.
“Over the last two months the situation has changed dramatically,” Paessler said. “I think this virus is going to explode in variants.”
He added: "I think it's obvious it's a race. The virus is ahead."
Biomed Protection, which received a $1.4 million grant from the state of North Dakota, also is working to help design vaccines to treat diseases, including seasonal flu.
So far, Biomed has been “a little bit under the radar” as it is developing and marketing its technologies, said Paessler, a leading infectious disease researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he also is a director of Galveston National Laboratory.
“It’s pretty new what we’re doing,” he said, adding that it isn’t a “mainstream approach,” but offers certain advantages.
The lead scientist in developing the online tool is Veljko Veljkovic of Institute Vinca.
Biomed has developed more than 20 candidates for COVID-19 vaccines that are designed to keep up with the virus’ mutations. Some are being tested in hamsters. The firm wants to work in partnership with companies to develop vaccines and treatments.
"We're trying to reach out to companies," Paessler said.
Because the coronavirus is mutating rapidly, there is evidence some of the approved vaccines are not doing a good job of providing coverage and could lose their effectiveness, Paessler said.
The company has roots in Texas, but is looking to expand its operations in North Dakota. Biomed Protection is searching for laboratory and office space on the campus of North Dakota State University, possibly at the Research and Technology Park.
In the near term, it is looking at lab space within NDSU’s microbiology department, said Isabelle Chambers, Biomed’s research associate. It also is looking at space availability on the campus of the University of North Dakota.
“That is already in the works,” she said, adding that plans call for moving lab equipment up from Texas within a few months that would enable testing of cocktails of antibodies to treat COVID-19. “We would be able to test certain antibody cocktails against that mutant,” Chambers said.
Some of the antibody cocktails being developed can be administered intranasally, enabling patients to be treated at home, Paessler said. “There’s a lot of work in that area,” he said.
Treatments have improved significantly since early in the pandemic, leading to much higher survival rates of hospitalized patients, Paessler said. Some researchers are working on stem-cell therapies.
“It seems to be getting better and better and better,” he said of COVID-19 treatments. “It’s not like it was at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Biomed has received support from Aldevron, a Fargo-based firm that is a world leader in making plasmid DNA, proteins and enzymes for biotechnology and bio-pharmaceutical researchers and companies.
If all goes well, within several years Biomed Protection could have a "bunch of people" working in North Dakota, Paessler said.