Mercer University College of Pharmacy faculty member Martin D’Souza, Ph.D., recently began research into designing a microparticle vaccine for COVID-19.
Dr. D’Souza has previously used patented nanotechnology to design and deliver nanovaccines for infectious diseases and cancer. His approach involves using tiny “bead-like” nanoparticles and microparticles to deliver drugs and vaccines.
“The advantage of putting a vaccine in a microparticle is that it looks even more foreign to the body,” said Dr. D’Souza. “Therefore, the body creates an even stronger immune response.”
Dr. D’Souza will focus his COVID-19 vaccine research on the Spike surface glycoprotein– also known as the S protein– that is present on the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The S protein attaches to a receptor called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE-2, on human alveolar cells in the lungs.
“Typically, the virus infects humans via the S protein, which fits perfectly onto the ACE-2 receptor of the lung cells,” said Dr. D’Souza. “The lung cells take up the virus, and it uses the human body to replicate itself and create millions of copies.”
The S glycoprotein, which is commercially available, will be formulated into nanovaccines by Dr. D’Souza and his lab. They will then evaluate the capacity of the human immune system to mount a strong antibody response against the S protein on the virus.
“We’ve worked with virus and bacterial proteins for years,” said Dr. D’Souza. “We feel comfortable that we can at least come up with some interesting vaccine formulations.”
Dr. D’Souza’s nanotechnology laboratory at Mercer focuses on the development of novel technologies using nanoparticles to deliver drugs and vaccines by nonconventional routes of administration such as oral, buccal and microneedle-based transdermal vaccines.
His lab has conducted previous National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research on universal influenza and RSV vaccines. Additional vaccine projects undertaken by his lab include HPV, meningitis and gonorrhea, as well as melanoma, breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.
In 2018, Dr. D’Souza received a grant from the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to support the development of a first-ever gonorrhea vaccine. His innovative vaccine candidate incorporates whole inactivated microparticle gonorrhea bacterial vaccine formulations that are delivered through a microneedle patch that is applied to the skin, much like an adhesive bandage.
In 2016, Dr. D’Souza, with funding from the NIH National Cancer Institute, developed a first-of-its-kind spray-dried oral microparticulate vaccine administered via a capsule to treat ovarian cancer. The vaccine is expected to enter Phase I clinical trials next year sponsored by Kiromic Biopharma at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
Dr. D’Souza joined Mercer’s faculty in 1986 and currently serves as professor of pharmaceutical sciences, director of graduate programs, director of clinical laboratories, co-director of the Center of Drug Delivery and Research and Dick R. Gourley Chair of Pharmaceutics in the College of Pharmacy.
He earned his B.S. in pharmacy from the University of Bombay and Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Pittsburgh.