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Illustration of a nanoparticle

Maryland scientists came together earlier this month to discuss next-generation vaccine formulation and delivery, as the Biotech Connector speaker series returned to Frederick. 

The Biotech Connector is a quarterly networking and speaker series, hosted by the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research and Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. The scientific event invites experts across disciplines and backgrounds for an inside look at local advances in innovative technologies in biological sciences to improve human health.  

The March 1 event centered around next-generation vaccines, which are created using emerging or nonconventional methods. 

New generation of vaccines; new needs 

The Frederick National Laboratory’s Marina Dobrovolskaia, Ph.D., kicked off the meeting with a brief overview and review of scientific history—highlighting the progress made since the first vaccination, for smallpox, was developed in 1796, and what a next-generation vaccine means today. 

“These days, many years later, we have many types of modern vaccines,” Dobrovolskaia said pointing to a slide showcasing examples, including the Hepatitis A and COVID-19 vaccines.  

Screenshot of a PowerPoint slide titled "Types of Modern Vaccines with Some Examples"

Dobrovolskaia is the director of operations and the head of the immunology section at the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory within the Frederick National Laboratory. The laboratory has characterized hundreds of distinct nanomedicine formulations and serves as a resource and knowledge base to facilitate the development and clinical translation of nanotechnologies intended as cancer therapeutics and diagnostics. 

Delivery methods for mRNA vaccines 

Dobrovolskaia introduced Puneet Tyagi, Ph.D., associate director of the Dosage Form Design and Development group at AstraZeneca, who focused on messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines and the importance of nanomedicine delivery systems and how certain nanoforumulations were game changing for vaccine technology.  

Tyagi discussed the challenges faced in delivering mRNA vaccines. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in advances in technology that benefited from lipid nanoparticles (LNP). 

LNPs encapsulate a drug in a lipid—fat—shell to help deliver it more effectively and easily to cells, which are also typically surrounded by fats.  

With LNP, mRNA vaccines—including the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines—were able to succeed in the clinic. 

But LNP is just one delivery platform, Tyagi said. AstraZeneca is looking into other technologies including silica nanoparticles and microneedles. Tyagi detailed the benefits those formulations provide and how they compensate for some weakness in conventional lipid nanoparticles. 

“That makes these other formulations attractive or worth exploring too,” Tyagi said. 

Tissue-targeted lipid nanoparticles 

Stephen Stern, Ph.D., delved deeper into LNPs. Stern, the director of research and development at the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory alongside Dobrovolskaia, discussed current efforts to develop tissue-targeted LNP constructs to deliver therapeutic nucleic acids in vaccines to patients.  

Current LNP nucleic acid formulations primarily accumulate in the liver and regional lymph nodes. However, an LNP that can target specific tissues and cell populations could avoid that and benefit cancer and many diseases, including neurological, cardiovascular, and infectious diseases. 

“Tissue- and cell-specific LNP delivery has the potential to revolutionize nucleic-acid-based therapies, and the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory has several ongoing collaborative formulation projects in this research area,” Stern said. 

Both talks showcased how scientists are leveraging their expertise and capabilities to improve vaccine development, ending on hopeful notes for the future and promise of a new generation of active agents. 

Stay tuned for the next event 

The Biotech Connector series covers a wide range of topics on technological and biological advances to improve human health. Past topics included cell therapy, gene editing, immunotherapy, cryo-electron microscopy technologies, and liquid biopsies—and additional topics and speakers are planned for 2023. Attendees can join online or in-person for a great networking opportunity. Join the mailing list here