By adding synergistic self-adjuvanting properties to COVID-19 RNA vaccines, MIT researchers have found a new approach that could lead to intranasal vaccines for COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases. (Image: Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT, with figures from iStock)

MIT researchers have engineered both the nanoparticles used to deliver the COVID-19 antigen and the antigen itself, to boost the immune response, without the need for a separate adjuvant.

If further developed for use in humans, this type of RNA vaccine could help to reduce costs, the dosage needed, and potentially lead to longer-lasting immunity. The researchers’ tests also showed that when delivered intranasally, the vaccine induced a strong immune response when compared to the response elicited by traditional, intramuscular vaccination.

“With intranasal vaccination, you might be able to kill COVID at the mucus membrane, before it gets into your body,” said Professor and Senior Author Daniel Anderson. “Intranasal vaccines may also be easier to administer to many people, since they don’t require an injection.”

The researchers believe that the effectiveness of other types of RNA vaccines that are now in development, including vaccines for cancer, could be improved by incorporating similar immune-stimulating properties.

In this study, the researchers employed two different strategies to boost the immune response. For the first, they focused on a protein called C3d, which is part of an arm of the immune response known as the complement system. This set of proteins helps the body fight off infection, and C3d’s role is to bind to antigens and amplify the antibody response to those antigens.

The researchers engineered the mRNA to encode the C3d protein fused to the antigen, so that both components are produced as one protein by cells that receive the vaccine.

In the second phase of their strategy, the researchers modified the lipid nanoparticles used to deliver the RNA vaccine, so that in addition to helping with RNA delivery, the lipids also intrinsically stimulate a stronger immune response.

To identify lipids that would work best, the researchers created a library of 480 lipid nanoparticles with different types of chemistries. All of these are “ionizable” lipids, which become positively charged when they enter acidic environments. The original COVID RNA vaccines also included some ionizable lipids because they help the nanoparticles to self-assemble with RNA and they help target cells to take up the vaccine.

“We understood that nanoparticles themselves could be immunostimulatory, but we weren’t quite sure what the chemistry was that was needed to optimize that response. So instead of trying to make the perfect one, we made a library and evaluated them, and through that we identified some chemistries that seemed to improve their response,” Anderson said.

The researchers tested their new vaccine, which included both RNA-encoded C3d and a top-performing ionizable lipid identified from their library screen, in mice. They found that mice injected with this vaccine produced 10 times more antibodies than mice given unadjuvanted COVID RNA vaccines. The new vaccine also provoked a stronger response among T cells, which play important roles in combating the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“For the first time, we’ve demonstrated a synergistic boost in immune responses by engineering both the RNA and its delivery vehicles,” said University of Toronto Assistant Professor Bowen Li. “This prompted us to investigate the feasibility of administering this new RNA vaccine platform intranasally, considering the challenges presented by the mucociliary blanket barrier in the upper airways.”

When the researchers delivered the vaccine intranasally, they observed a similarly strong immune response in the mice. If developed for use in people, an intranasal vaccine could potentially offer enhanced protection against infection because it would generate an immune response within the mucosal tissues that line the nasal passages and lungs.

Because self-adjuvanting vaccines elicit a stronger response at a lower dose, this approach could also help to reduce the cost of vaccine doses, which might allow them to reach more people, especially in developing nations, the researchers said.

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