Wayne State Researchers Develop Software That May Help Expedite COVID-19 Vaccine

Software developed by researchers at Detroit’s Wayne State University could lead to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The offering already has been used by scientists around the world who are working on a cure.
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WSU researchers have developed a software that has been used in efforts across the globe to create a COVID-19 vaccine. // Photo courtesy of Wayne State University

Software developed by researchers at Detroit’s Wayne State University could lead to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The offering already has been used by scientists around the world who are working on a cure.

The computer-driven approach identifies fragments of the target pathogen that would provide a suitable vaccine, avoiding potential safety concerns from the more traditional approach of using whole pathogens.

“Four academic publications recently submitted to preprint servers by international research groups report their work toward developing a COVID-19 vaccine using a technique called immunoinformatics,” says Alan Dombkowski, associate professor of pediatrics at WSU. The software was developed in his lab. “It is a computer-driven approach, and a key step uses our software, Disulfide by Design.”

Dombkowski is an internationally recognized expert on disulfide engineering, an important step in immunoinformatics, a newer method that uses fragments of the pathogen.

Here’s how it works: Computational techniques can predict locations in a protein or peptide where disulfide bonds can be introduced. Several peptide fragments from different proteins of the virus can be linked together and simultaneously provide immunity for different strains of a virus or to ensure coverage of different stages of the viral life cycle, known as multi-epitope peptide vaccine development.

“The three-dimensional structure of a vaccine is very important to its recognition by an antibody, akin to a lock and key,” Dombkowski says. “A weakness of using protein fragments is that they are often unstable and easily unfold. However, the stability of peptide vaccines can be increased by introducing artificial bonds that stitch the peptide strands together.”

The classical approach to developing vaccines relies on inactivated or attenuated whole pathogens to which the body develops antibodies, protecting an individual from future exposure. The approach can include a lengthy development cycle, production challenges, the potential of incomplete activation, and allergic responses.

The production of peptide-based vaccines is comparatively simple, fast, and cost-effective.

The web-based tool developed by Dombkowski and Douglas Craig, research assistant for the Department of Oncology at WSU, is called Disulfide by Design 2 and was used by scientists in Bangladesh, Belgium, Malaysia, and Pakistan to accomplish the step of vaccine stabilization in their immunoinformatics approach to identifying potential COVID-19 vaccines.

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