WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Taking A Shot: Vaccine Research Gets New Funding Source

By Audrey Elsberry, Beth A. Khlare and Vicky Janowski, posted Jun 20, 2024
UNCW associate professor of chemistry Ying Wang (Photo by Malcom Little)
A vaccine research project out of the University of North Carolina Wilmington was approved for grant funding in NCInnovation’s inaugural cycle in May.

The award was part of $5.2 million that NCInnovation (NCI) approved for eight research projects at seven of the state’s public universities in the UNC System. The round came four months after the General Assembly included $500 million to create the funding organization in the state budget.

Operating as an endowment, the money – allocated by the state in two parts – is intended to focus on “public university applied researchers working on discoveries that have commercial promise,” according to the organization.

At UNCW, associate professor of chemistry Ying Wang received one of the initial grants for his work on developing a vaccine platform that could potentially produce a universal and longer-lasting flu vaccine.
His research addresses that current flu vaccines don’t target every strain and have to be given every flu season.

As of press time, dollar amounts for each grant have not been made public, as each recipient is still going through the steps of accepting the grant, such as signing agreements and formal notifications to government partners, according to UNCW officials.

UNCW submitted two proposals, one for Wang’s vaccine research and one concerning a “machine-learning medical assessment tool” used for “strengthening protocols to reduce head trauma.”

This grant cycle provided less funding than NCI officials plan to dole out in the following cycles, said NCI spokesperson Patrick Ryan. The entirety of the first grant cycle comes from interest earned on the NCI endowment, officials said.

The funding is intended to bridge the gap in the university research and development process between proof-of-concept and go-to-market, a gap the organization refers to as the “valley of death.”

Wang’s research is folded into the UNCW spinoff DuraVax Inc.

The startup received a nearly $300,000 Phase One Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Science Foundation, officials announced in April.

Backed by years of biologics formulation development for mRNA vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and peptide drugs, Wang started The Wang Lab at UNCW in 2015.

As an offshoot of the lab, Wang and his colleagues, chemistry major Carson Jackson and graduate student Harrison Wooten, launched DuraVax to develop formulation technologies that solve the cold-storage requirement challenge for mRNA vaccines like the COVID vaccine.

“We were studying a cool natural phenomenon of mRNA in cells during COVID lockdown,” Wang said. “And we realized that our scientific understanding may help solve the cold chain challenges of mRNA vaccines.”

mRNA vaccines introduce a small piece of a protein found on the virus’s outer membrane. When it’s not inside a cell, mRNA needs protection to keep it from disintegrating. A cold chain for transporting and storing the vaccines is required.

The cold chain begins when the vaccine is manufactured and continues through transportation to the distribution center, ending with the local immunization provider at the time of administration. Throughout the entire supply chain, the vaccines are maintained within a range from -112 degrees Fahrenheit to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the vaccines are unboxed and thawed, they can be kept in a refrigerator for approximately two weeks.

“At ambient temperatures in southern America or in tropical countries that reach as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit, mRNA degrades in a couple of hours without cold storage,” Wang said.

The knowledge underlying the technology that eliminates the need for the cold chain was accumulated over the years during formulation development research at The Wang Lab.

“We have been working on the specific mRNA formulation technology for two years,” Wang said. “Because we don’t need to change the chemical composition of mRNA and lipid nanoparticles in the existing vaccine, pharmaceutical companies can easily adopt our secret ingredients and process to convert their own vaccines into a thermostable formulation.”

Vaccine development is a 10-plus-year process consisting of basic research and preclinical studies, including tests in animals, followed by clinical studies on humans. Formulation development is an integrated part of vaccine development from a very early stage. The development plan for DuraVax was made after talking with literally hundreds of drug and vaccine developers.

“When DuraVax developed our formulation technology, we kept the entire vaccine development process in mind. Using only FDA-approved ingredients, our formulation process can be seamlessly incorporated into vaccine developers’ existing pipelines,” he said. “While we didn’t make new vaccines directly, our novel formulation technologies allow room temperature storage and transportation of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID mRNA as well as any other emerging mRNA vaccines and therapeutics for treating various infectious diseases, cancers and other diseases.”

This development distributes vaccines to areas without adequate cold-storage facilities or trained personnel. This, in turn, reduces vaccine waste due to improper storage, freezer malfunction and open vial wastage.

Wang intends to push the limit of room-temperature shelf life with the expectation of launching the formulation technology globally to large pharmaceutical companies in two years.

“Wilmington is one of the most vibrant communities of entrepreneurship in the country,” he said. “UNCW has provided support to incubate advances in sciences and innovations. And state funding agencies such as NC Biotech Center and NCInnovation have provided essential funding and business training to help scientists move their innovation outside the lab.

“Like all scientists,” he added, “we feel content and excited to see our research get out of the lab door and help people in real life.”
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