A scientist trained in Winnipeg is part of an Australian research team that has discovered how a crucial component of the immune system responds to COVID-19 — key information for those racing to create a vaccine.
The study’s findings, published this week in the medical journal Nature Medicine, could be the secret to determining which vaccines work best at protecting people from the deadly virus.
Dr. Jennifer Juno says the study focused on patients with mild forms of COVID-19 who have since recovered, in an effort to find how they developed a successful immune response.
“Our goal is to try to mimic that kind of immune response with a vaccine,” she told Global News over video link from Australia.
“We wanted to study people who didn’t get severely ill so we could understand how the immune system recognizes different parts of the coronavirus, but without some of those confounding factors that occur if you become really sick or if people are hospitalized.”
The researchers found a range of immune responses, said Juno, who received her PhD from the University of Manitoba before moving to Australia in 2016 to do postdoctoral research at the University of Melbourne.
“But interestingly, we were able to identify a particular type of immune cell that seemed to be associated with these higher, stronger immune responses,” she explains.
“We’re hopeful moving forward, that we can use that information to better understand how we can take advantage of those cells and to assess whether better vaccine candidates are able to induce that kind of response and induce better protection in individuals who are vaccinated.”
A release from the University’s Doherty Institute, where Juno and the team scientists did their research, says the spike protein that attaches the virus to human cells is the target for most of the current COVID-19 vaccine human clinical trials.
Juno and the team hope their research can be applied to those trials.
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“Now we know how the immune system responds to the spike protein,” she said in the release.
“And we have these biomarkers, or predictors of what elicits a good or poor immune response to COVID-19. We can look at the vaccine candidates and see what will offer the best protection.”
As for when a vaccine might be approved, Juno couldn’t give a concrete answer just yet.
But she told Global News she’s “excited and optimistic” about information from clinical trials that she expects will be made public in the coming months.
“There are a number of different vaccine candidates right now that have begun phase two or phase three clinical trials,” she said, noting an Australian vaccine started human trials this week.
“I think we’re going to start getting a lot more data coming out in the next little while that will give us a better sense about what kind of immunity we can actually induce from these different vaccines.”
— With files from Gabrielle Marchand
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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