This Fall, following the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Call to Action for engineers to “crowdsource and collectively brainstorm engineering solutions for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),” USC Viterbi is offering “Viterbi vs. Pandemics!,” a new lecture series by USC Viterbi faculty to comprehensively provide an engineering-centric framework for addressing and understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the 11-week, free program, students gain exposure to myriad topics, ranging from the estimation of risk and protein engineering by directed evolution to the contributions made by computer science and electrical engineering faculty in automating human safety technologies, detecting misinformation and digital contact tracing. The one- to two-hour sessions take place on Thursdays at 6 p.m.
On October 22, Zohrab A. Kaprielian fellow in Engineering and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering, Pin Wang spoke about the immunology behind the COVID-19 vaccine, the status of different vaccine platforms in development, and how to balance safety and efficacy as we race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Wang’s lab specializes in the emerging field of immunobioengineering, which uses engineering tools to better understand the immune system and to develop novel molecular and cellular immunotherapies.
Since February, Wang and his team have been developing a vaccine by engineering a hybrid virus, the core of which is based on that of the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV); a family of viruses which include rabies among others. The surface of the hybrid virus is then covered with spike proteins derived from the COVID-19 virus.
“The reason that this hybrid virus can be a good vaccine format, is that by having the COVID-19 surface protein, this can hopefully trick our immune system into recognizing it,” Wang said. “That way we can induce the neutralizing antibody to stop the virus from infecting us in the future.”
Wang’s team’s approach is a vectored vaccine, which does not contain the harmful components of original viruses, and thus has safety benefits as opposed to vaccine forms using live-attenuated viruses.
“We recognize that this virus has a very different life cycle to other viruses and affects a very broad population,” Wang said. “So it’s important for the research community to test all different kinds of vaccine platforms. So that we can ensure at least one of them will work.”
The researchers have also been isolating the human antibodies that can successfully fight the viral infection, in order to create working therapeutic treatments to improve recovery times for COVID-19 patients.