• Scancell featured in the Guardian
  • Focus on the exciting potential of T-cell immunity is spurring the sector on to create a new generation of jabs

The speed at which scientists worked to develop the first Covid jabs was unprecedented. Just nine months after the UK went into lockdown, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan officially became the first person in the world outside a trial to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. But the virus is mutating, and the emergence of the Omicron variant last month is already focusing attention on the next generation of jabs.

So what do we know about the new Covid-19 vaccines? One change is with delivery mechanisms, such as San Francisco firm Vaxart’s vaccine-in-a-pill, and Scancell’s spring-powered injectors that pierce the skin without a needle. But the biggest development is in T-cell technology. Produced by the bone marrow, T-cells are white blood cells that form a key part of the immune system. While current vaccines mainly generate antibodies that stick to the virus and stop it infecting the body, the new vaccines prime T-cells to find and destroy infected cells, thus preventing viral replication and disease. (The current vaccines also produce a T-cell response, but to a lesser extent.)

After a recent study published in Nature, scientists said vaccines targeting a T-cell response could produce much longer-lasting immunity, and be better at fighting virus mutations. “The first-generation Covid-19 vaccines were a rapid and massive victory – far greater than we dared predict,” said Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London. “But they’re only the first generation of quick wins, which is how they should be regarded. Moving forward there are challenges to consider.”

Scancell, the spinout from the University of Nottingham, now based in Oxford, is testing two vaccine candidates that induce antibody and T-cell responses against the original and variant Sars-CoV-2 viruses in 40 healthy volunteers in South Africa. The first patient was dosed in October and Scancell will conduct a further trial in the UK, with the first data from the early-stage clinical trials expected by June.

The vaccines have been developed with Nottingham’s two universities, with £2m of funding from Innovate UK, and are based on a modification of Scancell’s DNA vaccine technology. They are given via needle-free, spring-powered injectors that use a narrow stream of fluid to penetrate the skin.

Founded in 1997 by Lindy Durrant, professor of cancer immunotherapy at Nottingham University and the firm’s chief executive, Scancell specialises in developing cancer vaccines. It listed in London in 2008. Its two main shareholders are the US health investor Redmile and the Singapore Vulpes Life Science Fund, while Durrant and other management together own 1.8% of the company.

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