Scientists reengineer red-blood cells for new vaccine delivery method

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario have found a way to “reengineer” the surface of red blood cells to give the cells the ability to safely and easily transfer pharmaceuticals throughout the body, that they believe will provide a further tool in the fight against COVID-19.

The team of researchers found that by modifying red blood cells they could initiate an immune response to fight COVID-19. The study was only conducted in mice, but the results prove to be very promising. 

Sebastian Himbert, lead author on the study and a recent graduate student in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster, said that the researchers “have developed a method where we can trigger an immune response without the use of genetic material and yet we are able to synthesize these particles in a very short amount of time.” 

The current research, which was published in PLOS ONE last week, builds off of previous studies that used modified red blood cells to target infections or to treat diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. The process “is efficient and can be completed in one day in the lab” according to Himbert and will help to reduce medication doses and therefore adverse events following treatment.

Maikel Rheinstadter, a senior supervisor on the paper and a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at McMaster pinpoints this as an issue with the current mRNA vaccines saying that the “current vaccine delivery methods often cause drastic immune system reactions and have short-lived responses.”

 The team of researchers removed everything from the red blood cells, creating a transport system for the virus to be introduced to the body without using genetic material. The membrane of the red blood cells were embedded with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, making the cells virus-like particles which resembled a coronavirus. These cells then trigger an immune response and produce antibodies in the mice.

The modified red blood cells “can potentially lead to antibody production, higher central memory T cell, and lower regulatory T cell response when delivered to the spleen.”

Researchers say that this process is completely harmless. Rheinstadter explains that “this platform makes our own blood cells smart in many different ways.” They have essentially created a technology by “using our own cells much like nanorobots inside of our bodies and whenever they see a disease, they can fight it.”

The researchers believe that this technology can be used against different variants of COVID-19 and could be used in other vaccines or therapeutics. Dawn Bowdish, Professor of Medicine at McMaster and Canada Research Chair in Aging & Immunity and co-author of the paper praised the team’s work saying “this is the kind of creative, interdisciplinary research that McMaster is known for. It was exhilarating working with physicists, structural biologists and immunologists to design a radically different vaccine platform.”

More research needs to be done, such as “toxicity evaluations and pathological analysis including vasculitis, and options for intramuscular administration.” However, the authors believe that this platform will be useful going forward, especially as an efficient option to create vaccines in case of future global pandemics.