Because of the rapid mutations of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), an effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 variants is needed to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). T cells, in addition to neutralizing antibodies, are an important component of naturally acquired protective immunity, and a number of studies have shown that T cells induced by natural infection or vaccination contribute significantly to protection against several viral infections including SARS-CoV-2. However, it has never been tested whether a T cell-inducing vaccine can provide significant protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection in the absence of preexisting antibodies. In this study, we designed and evaluated lipid nanoparticle (LNP) formulated mRNA vaccines that induce only T cell responses or both T cell and neutralizing antibody responses by using two mRNAs. One mRNA encodes SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Spike protein in prefusion conformation for induction of neutralizing antibodies. The other mRNA encodes over one hundred T cell epitopes (multi-T cell epitope or MTE) derived from non-Spike but conserved regions of the SARS-CoV-2. We show immunization with MTE mRNA alone protected mice from lethal challenge with the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant or a mouse-adapted virus MA30. Immunization with both mRNAs induced the best protection with the lowest viral titer in the lung. These results demonstrate that induction of T cell responses, in the absence of preexisting antibodies, is sufficient to confer protection against severe disease, and that a vaccine containing mRNAs encoding both the Spike and MTE could be further developed as a universal SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.
Qin, Jane; Jeon, Ju Hyeong; Xu, Jiangsheng; Langston, Laura Katherine; Marasini, Ramesh; Mou, Stephanie; Montoya, Brian; Melo-Silva, Carolina R; Jeon, Hyo Jin; Zhu, Tianyi; Sigal, Luis J.; Xu, Renhuan; and Zhu, Huabin, "Design and Preclinical Evaluation of a Universal SARS-CoV-2 mRNA Vaccine" (2023). Department of Microbiology and Immunology Faculty Papers. Paper 174.
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