Neil King (University of Washington)

Can a dark­horse syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy Covid-19 vac­cine one-up the fron­tun­ners? The Gates Foun­da­tion, Am­gen bet 'yes'

When the coro­n­avirus broke out, Neil King sat down at a com­put­er at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton and de­signed a soc­cer ball.

King, a pro­fes­sor at the school’s In­sti­tute for Pro­tein De­sign, had built sim­i­lar soc­cer balls for oth­er virus­es, us­ing mod­ern syn­thet­ic bi­ol­o­gy to riff on one of the most po­tent in­no­va­tions in the his­to­ry of vac­cines.

Years ago, re­searchers learned that, when made with biotech­nol­o­gy, some vi­ral pro­teins could spon­ta­neous­ly as­sem­ble them­selves in­to “virus-like par­ti­cles,” or VLPs. Al­though be­nign, these par­ti­cles looked like a virus and the bod­ies rec­og­nized them as such, pro­duc­ing fan­tas­tic im­mune re­spons­es. Gar­dasil, Mer­ck’s HPV vac­cine, was made this way, po­ten­tial­ly sav­ing mil­lions of lives over the next cen­tu­ry.

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