Professor Pol Besenius, a chemist working at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz (JGU), has secured funding from the European Research Council (ERC) for the development of fully synthetic vaccines. Among other things, Besenius aims to overcome the problems of low stability and short shelf life of current vaccines. The basic concept for the design of new vaccines is the preparation of a platform using molecular building blocks that will self-assemble into disease-specific vaccine candidates. Over the next five years, the SUPRAVACC (Supramolecular Engineering of Glycan-Decorated Peptides as Synthetic Vaccines) project will receive EUR 2 million in funding from the European Research Council. The ERC Consolidator Grant is one of the richest funding scholarships in the EU.
The most important role of vaccines is the induction of immunological memory, which is crucial for long-term protection against pathogens. Current strategies used to ensure the efficacy of antibacterial and antiviral vaccines rely on the attachment of pathogen-specific identification markers to carrier proteins. Unfortunately, the stability of the resulting formulations is poor while their shelf life is short, which limits their use in developing countries. The development of new vaccines to treat endogenous diseases such as cancer remains a challenge, as it is not possible to create modular or tailor-made vaccines with currently available techniques.
“I will focus on a radical new design approach to produce fully synthetic supramolecular vaccines,” explained Besenius. The goal is to synthesize carbohydrate and glycopeptide epitopes and attach them to supramolecular building blocks. Epitopes are structures or parts of molecules that can trigger a specific immune response. Disease specific antigens and immune boosters can be attached to personalized supramolecular building blocks.
Self-assembly kits provide supramolecular components that assemble to form vaccines
Supramolecular materials are produced through the self-assembly of molecular building blocks that combine to create ordered polymer structures. Since the components self-assemble into nanoscale particles, they can be used as the building blocks of vaccine subunits. With the help of the proposed approach, vaccines with a wide range of applications can be generated through the formation of application-specific particles through the co-assembly of components with tailored functionality. “All we’ll have to do is define the required composition of the mixture. The building blocks will then do the rest and self-assemble into bespoke nanostructures,” Besenius said. This modular concept also ensures that the resulting vaccines are free from biological contamination while the components themselves can be more easily stored.
The immunological properties of fully synthetic vaccines will be evaluated by Professor Pol Besenius and his team in cooperation with the group of Professor Edgar Schmitt at the Institute of Immunology at the University Medical Center Mainz. “Through the SUPRAVACC project, we hope to pioneer the development of minimalist vaccines with a wide range of applications,” added Besenius. Researchers will evaluate this supramolecular engineering approach for its ability to induce immunological protection against bacterial diseases and also its potential use as anti-tumor vaccines. In addition, the results of this project should have an impact on the design and preparation of candidate vaccines in academic and industrial research laboratories.
ERC Consolidator Grants: Academic Excellence and Revolutionary Innovation
Pol Besenius was born in Luxembourg in 1981. He studied chemistry at TU Wien in Austria and at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He obtained his doctorate for his thesis prepared at the University of Strathclyde and WestCHEM, the Joint Research School of Chemistry of the University of Strathclyde and the University of Glasgow, before joining the Eindhoven University of Technology in as a post-doctoral fellow and Marie Curie Fellow. Besenius then obtained a Liebig Fellowship to create his own independent research group at the Institute for Organic Chemistry of the University of Münster and the Center for Nanotechnology (CeNTech) from 2011 to 2014. In January 2015, Besenius was appointed professor macromolecular. Chemistry at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.
The ERC Consolidator Grant is one of the richest EU funding scholarships for individual researchers. The European Research Council uses these grants to support outstanding researchers in the development of their own projects, typically seven to twelve years after completing their doctorate. In order to receive the grant, applicants must not only demonstrate excellence in research, but also demonstrate the pioneering nature of their project and its feasibility.
The European Research Council has awarded two more ERC Consolidator grants to researchers at the JGU: Professor Martin Kaltenpoth will study how symbionts help in the biosynthesis of beetle cuticles and Dr Mustapha Laatiaoui will focus on the development of a new technique optical spectroscopy. With a total of three ERC Consolidator Grants each, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) are the top performing universities in the Association of German Universities U15.
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