Interview With Immunitrack About the Fight Against the COVID-19 Virus


David Munis Zepernick from Medicon Valley Alliance has interviewed CSO, Sune Justesen, and CEO, Stephan Thorgrimsen, founders of Immunitrack


Q1) Can you perhaps explain a little about the general vaccine development strategy adopted by most companies today?

There is an urgent need to develop an effective vaccine against SARS-CoV2. The vaccine strategy currently adopted by most companies is comparable to the flu vaccine strategy where surface antigen (HA protein for flu and Spike for SARS-CoV2) is applied to elicit the production of antibodies that match virus-neutralising epitopes in the surface antigen. Just this week, the first patient was vaccinated with Moderna's mRNA-1273, which encodes the Spike protein. The coming months will hopefully give us an idea of the level of virus neutralising titres and the potential efficacy of this and other vaccines.

One concern is that the virus may mutate in genes that encode the epitope regions targeted by the neutralising antibodies raised by the vaccine, in a phenomenon called "antigen drift". This is a common event with flu viruses, and this is one of the reasons why new vaccines need to be developed for flu every year. In the case of SARS-CoV2, we do not even know at this stage whether vaccination with the Spike protein will work at all. It is therefore crucial to understand how the immune system naturally copes with viral infection, and develop a vaccination strategy where immune system readiness for coping with SARS-Cov2 is maximised.

Several studies with flu and other viruses such as hepatitis-C (HCV) and cytomegalovirus (CMV) have demonstrated that an effective viral clearance during viral infection and a lessening in symptom severity is dependent on proper CD4 and CD8 T cell activation (1). While a CD8 T cell response is important for clearing virally-infected human cells, the presence of CD4 T cells is important for immunological memory of infection. The SARS-CoV2 virus encodes 10 different proteins, all having epitopes that can potentially stimulate an anti-viral immune response.

Q2) Immunitrack has initiated a project that may help the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. What is your approach?

Our company has a unique in vitro platform to assess any epitope's ability to stimulate the adaptive immune response (T cell response). We test the ability of epitopes to bind to receptors called Major Histocompatibility Complex I and II through in vitro MHC/epitope binding assays. By combining ultra sensitive MHC/epitope affinity and stability assays, we provide highly reliable data. Presentation of epitopes by MHC on the surfaces of e.g. virus-infected cells, dendritic cells and antibody-producing cells (B cells) are the most decisive events in establishing a targeted and lasting adaptive immune response against viral threats. See Figure 1 in our report, which can be downloaded for free here.

Q3) You are collaborating with researchers at the University of Copenhagen. What is the nature of this collaboration?

We collaborate with the bioinformatics team at the Center for Genomic Medicine, Copenhagen University Hospital. They performed the bioinformatics work and we further analysed the data by carrying out in vitro assays to remove false positive datapoints. The findings have just been published here.  The abstract has been viewed more than 6,500 times and 3,000 research groups from all over the world have already downloadeded the article and data package.

We are now setting up more ambitious in vitro screening efforts because we know  bioinformatics doesn't catch all relevant data. Our upcoming new data package will be used to study patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms vs. symptom-free COVID-19 patients, at hospitals in the US and Denmark. For now, we cannot reveal further details, as the setup with all partners is still being discussed.

Q4) If you succeed, when would a vaccine based on your technology be on the market?

We believe that the information we are providing is essential for studying the immune response of patients to this new virus, and for developing a new powerful vaccine. We also expect that vaccine projects using this type of data will be initiated within the next 6 months. Vaccine development typically takes 18-24 months. So, we will probably first see a vaccine based on this technology within the next 3 years.


This interview was published in Medicon Valley Alliance's newsletter MVA Update.
Find out more about Medicon Valley Alliance here

Learn more about Sune, Stephan and Immunitrack here

For further information, please contact:
Stephan Thorgrimsen, CEO

CSO, Sune Justesen, and CEO, Stephan Thorgrimsen, founders of Immunitrack