New type of COVID vaccine showing promise at Texas Biomed

New DNA vaccine administered by a “gene gun” doesn’t have to be stored in freezing temps

SAN ANTONIO - – A different type of COVID vaccine is in the works right here in San Antonio.

The UK company Scannell Ltd. chose Texas Biomed for their COVID vaccine research because of its high standards and proven track record.

By now, the public is well-versed about mRNA COVID vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna shots that act as messengers, teaching the immune system how to recognize the spiky SARS-CoV-2 virus.

A special team at Texas Biomed is working on a new vaccine that does something similar, except using DNA.

No, it’s not DNA from a person. It’s from bacteria.

Scientists formulate genes, inject them into the bacteria and once the DNA forms, they extract it to use for the vaccine.

“It’s very easy to grow bacteria. So they are extracted from the bacteria, purified, and then injected,” said Dr. Viraj Kulkarni with Texas Biomed.

Kulkarni leads the Texas Biomed Innovation Lab, created during the pandemic for researchers to collaborate across the globe.

“It’s a big deal. We have inquiries from all over the world. Actually, we had from South Korea, India, France and UK,” Kulkarni said.

The research on the DNA COVID vaccine is being done with a company in the UK, and it’s looking very promising.

Kulkarni and his team just finished the phase using mice, and he said it was almost 100% effective. There were also no serious side effects.

“They didn’t get infection at all,” he said.

Like mRNA vaccines, this DNA vaccine is safe and easy to make.

“So you can produce large amount of these vaccines very quickly,” Kulkarni said.

Another similarity is the technology for creating a DNA vaccine has been around for over 60 years, even longer than the mRNA technology.

However, there are a couple differences.

First, DNA vaccines don’t need to be stored at freezing temperatures, so they are much easier to transport. Plus, they can be used in areas without large medical centers.

“So it’s for resource-limited countries. This is a very, very promising candidate to move forward with,” Kulkarni said.

The second difference is that the DNA vaccine is not administered by needle.

“DNA vaccines traditionally were administered through a needle and syringe, but that was not very effective because the goal here is to make sure that the vaccine is delivered into as many cells as possible,” Kulkarni said.

To cover more ground, scientists use a fascinating device called a gene gun — a handheld device that propels the DNA strands into the skin using air pressure.

“That’s usually powered by helium gas. Because of the air pressure, the vaccine is delivered right into the cells,” Kulkarni explained.

Kulkarni said the process is not painful.

“In fact, it’s less painful than the needle and syringe,” he said.

The research team is now waiting for official approval to move into primate studies, hopefully followed by FDA human clinical trials.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.