Karl Klose, UTSA College of Sciences Professor of Microbiology professor. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Local researchers are using decades of infectious disease work to aid in the development of a novel vaccine to combat COVID-19.

A collaborative study led by Karl Klose, a University of Texas at San Antonio microbiology professor and director of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, is looking at how a prototype vaccine for the respiratory illness tularemia, which Klose developed, might work on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Tularemia is a rare infectious disease that typically attacks the skin, eyes, lymph nodes, and lungs. Both tularemia and COVID-19 are respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling microbes into the lung, Klose said.

Since the tularemia vaccine can induce protection against the virus within the lungs, the team of researchers is adapting the vaccine to induce protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“We are using the platform created to treat tularemia and engineering bacterium to make the spike protein from coronavirus,” Klose said, and seeing if injecting it as a vaccine will make antibodies that prevent the virus from getting into cells.

On Friday, the research team was awarded a $200,000 grant from the recently formed San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics (SAPPT), which aims to take personalized medicine a step further by looking at the biology behind an individual diagnosis.

Working with researchers from the Southwest Research Institute, UT Health San Antonio, and Texas Biomed, Klose will adapt the existing tularemia vaccine to address COVID-19 and test the live vaccine in animals to determine if it’s safe and effective at preventing the virus from attaching to cells.

“We are so fortunate to have this existing and deep collaboration between the four SAPPT institutions here in San Antonio already in place and developing vaccines,” UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said. “The team will be using their vaccine development platform to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine as soon as possible. We want to turn the full collaborative power of our doctors, scientists and bioengineers against this pandemic threat.”

Klose has been studying tularemia since 2001, when the 9/11 attacks brought biothreats such as anthrax attacks into the forefront of biomedical research. The team of researchers includes experts in immunology and microbiology, who “want to contribute the work being done around the world to combat this virus,” Klose said.

“Essentially we are using the expertise we already developed to treat other diseases to see if what we do might be able to contribute some way to protecting us all from this coronavirus pandemic,” Klose said. “We will be happy even just to contribute to furthering knowledge about COVID-19; people across the globe are working hard day in and out to figure this out.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.