Researchers specializing in infectious disease at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada are turning to cannabis as they build a new COVID-19 virus vaccine candidate. The research team says that a plant-based antigen may be easier to produce commercially on a broad scale than animal-based antigens.
Zyus Life Sciences, a medical cannabis company based out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, will determine if cannabis-based compounds can play a role in the fight against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Last year, the company received its license from Health Canada to develop cannabis-based medical products.
Zyus Life Sciences partnered with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan in an effort to develop proteins for a vaccine candidate using the cannabis plant. It is one of many efforts in the race for a viable vaccine.
Given the cornucopia of drugs that are being examined in the quest for a COVID-19 “cure”—including everything from hydroxychloroquine to the drug remdesivir—inevitably researchers turned to cannabis as a potential building block for a viable vaccine candidate as well.
How It Works
“We had a protein platform that we’ve been working on for a number of years prior to being in the cannabis space…” Zyus CEO Brent Zettl told Global News. “I asked [our team] the question, ‘do you think that we could produce a vaccine of this type of protein using our other plant system?’ And they didn’t really see why not.”
Zettle went on to explain that his team is working with two types of different compounds. One is made using a cannabis plant and another one is made using a different plant. The compounds are used to produce a protein that can be used for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
“The genetic information that VIDO-InterVac has developed to find the actual antigen that would work as a vaccine—that’s actually a strand of protein. So then we take that DNA and we actually then design it in a plant and then the plant itself can manufacture that same protein,” Zettl added.
According to Zettl, plant-based compounds can potentially be more effective than animal-based compounds because of plants’ ability to clone proteins easier. Plants are surprisingly efficient at manufacturing proteins. Plant-based compounds are better for large-scale operation capacity. In addition, plant-based proteins could be more appealing to an increasingly vegan population in the U.S.
Dr. Paul Hodgson, a senior manager with VIDO-InterVac, told CBC News that no one really knows what a final vaccine candidate will be, this early in the early stages of investigation. But with every vaccine trial, we know more about the virus and how it may be thwarted.
As anti-vaxxers gain dominance on platforms like Facebook—the efficacy of vaccines for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is likely to be disputed. A large number of anti-vaxxers already oppose any kind of COVID-19 vaccine, according to CTV News. But the teams at VIDO-InterVac and Zyus Life Sciences could be potentially on to something groundbreaking, which could produce yet another benefit from the cannabis plant. The CBD community, for instance, often overlaps with the anti-vaxxer community.
In the past, VIDO-InterVac previously produced two animal-based coronavirus vaccines, one for cattle and another for pigs. The company holds title as the first lab in Canada to have a vaccine candidate for animal testing, according to CBC News. VIDO-InterVac’s lab received a 23 million-dollar grant in federal funding last March to aid its COVID-19-related research. Judging by the research lab’s long list of achievements in the past, VIDO-InterVac could be onto something once again.
A purified vaccine protein could be ready by the end of August, representatives of VIDO-InterVac said. That’s when enough of the protein discovered by VIDO-InterVac will likely be extracted. In the U.S., the race for a vaccine is in full throttle. Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told a Senate panel that U.S. research teams are likely to find a viable vaccine, but not in time for the school year.
Other companies are also looking into other avenues for potential drugs to treat the effects of COVID-19, such as a team of researchers at the University of Lethbridge. In that study, some cannabis extracts reduced viral receptor activity in artificial human tissue—significantly. Researchers in Israel are also exploring how cannabis compounds could help to repair tissues damaged by COVID-19. CBD’s known anti-inflammatory properties make it appealing to scientists.
Cannabis components could prove to be useful for both vaccine candidates and other types of drugs meant to alleviate symptoms. In the race for a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19, more possibilities are likely to emerge involving the cannabis plant.