IC alumna on research team developing coronavirus vaccine
Behind the scenes — before cruises were canceled and restaurants were closed — researchers like Dr. Emma Reuschel ’07 were starting the long process of developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Reuschel, a postdoctoral fellow at The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, is on a team that has done pre-clinical research on a DNA vaccine targeting SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. The lab began working on a vaccine as soon as the DNA sequence for the virus was available in early January, Reuschel said. Since then, she and her colleagues working on other projects have been redirected, putting “pretty much all of our energy on COVID-19.”
It's motivating, Reuschel said, to work on a project that could have such an impact on people around the world, including those close to her.
“Everybody wants to know how fast a vaccine will be available and it's impossible to say for certain,” she said. “But I think all of the social distancing — keeping your distance, wearing a mask in public, washing your hands, and staying home when you're sick — all of those things are very important and are basically the best line of defense we have until, potentially, drugs and vaccines are found to be effective and can be rolled out to the public. I really hope that what we're working on can make a difference and, in the meantime, we have to do what we can to keep ourselves and everybody else we care about safe."
"I really hope that what we're working on can make a difference and, in the meantime, we have to do what we can to keep ourselves and everybody else we care about safe."
After the lab and its partner organizations did pre-clinical work — such as designing the vaccine and demonstrating that it was safe and immunogenic in animal studies — the vaccine was moved on to phase-one human trials. The Wistar Institute is collaborating with Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which received funding to develop the vaccine from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. New technologies and experience with recent outbreaks of diseases like SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola and new influenza strains have helped the industry move more quickly through the early, pre-clinical development stages than in the past, Reuschel said.
"Traditionally, vaccines take decades to go from initial design to approval,” she said. “So, we're clearly hoping that a vaccine for COVID-19 could be approved much faster than that.”
Before COVID-19 became a priority project, Reuschel was working on samples from phase one and phase two clinical trials for vaccines for MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the Zika virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MERS, caused by another coronavirus, was first reported in 2012 and the Zika virus caused large outbreaks in 2015 and 2016. Reuschel said Zika is an example of how long trials take for a new vaccine and how funding for research and development comes and goes. A lot of manpower was redirected to focus on Zika when an epidemic and an association with birth defects put it in the headlines.
"But then, as infection rates fall and the world kind of forgets about it, funding goes away and there's not enough attention spent on it to finish a vaccine, for example,” she said.
While her work is directly related to the pandemic, Reuschel is experiencing it like anyone else — with video calls to friends and family and trying to balance her news consumption. Illinois College students and faculty have a lot to be proud of, she said, for adapting to remote learning so quickly. In the lab, Reuschel and her colleagues maintain social distancing by shifting their lab practices, working alternating schedules and doing work from home when possible.
"But everybody's working lots of hours and it is a little more stressful than usual, just because the state of the world is more stressful for everybody,” she said.