AI tool may help develop universal vaccines capable of combatting virus variants before they emerge © Getty Images

AI tool may help develop universal vaccines capable of combatting virus variants before they emerge

The technology could be used to create universal vaccines for COVID, malaria and more, its creators say.

According to the World Health Organization, immunisation currently prevents four to five million deaths every year. However, an additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided through the use of more effective vaccines, they say.

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Vaccines work by training the immune system to respond to infection by a specific pathogen, such as a virus, parasite or bacteria. At the heart of every vaccine is an antigen – a small, safe molecule based on part of the pathogen, which triggers the protective immune response.

However, most vaccine antigens are based on a single pathogen component, such as the spike protein of the COVID SARS-CoV-2 virus, which limits their effectiveness and ability to cope with new variants.

Now, Oxford-based biotech start-up Baseimmune has developed an algorithm-based system capable of creating antigens containing all the parts of the pathogen. The technology could help researchers to develop the next generation of universal vaccines that protect against future variants that could evolve in several major diseases.

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“The major problem with current vaccines is that they aren’t designed to account for the evolutionary arms race that occurs between pathogens and the human immune system, and can’t protect against future variants or new mutations,” said co-founder and software engineer Phillip Kemlo.

“Our prediction algorithm addresses all of these challenges, accelerating the creation of vaccines that are as good as they possibly can be and will stand up to whatever variants may come in the future.”

Baseimmune’s vaccine design algorithm draws on genomic, epidemiological, immunological, clinical and evolutionary data to create blueprints for antigens capable of responding to a particular pathogen in its current form as well as likely variants that may arise in the future.

Back in January 2020, the Baseimmune team fed the small amount of existing data about SARS-CoV-2 into their algorithm, which correctly predicted major variants such as Alpha and Delta that would not emerge for another year.

The team were recently awarded £3.5m in funding in an investment round led by Hoxton Ventures and including early investors Creator Fund. They plan to use the money to help to create future-proof universal vaccines for several major diseases including COVID and malaria.

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“I grew up in Brazil and saw first-hand the impact of infectious disease as my aunt lived her whole life with the devastating effects of polio, a vaccine-preventable disease,” said co-founder Ariane Gomes. “The COVID pandemic has reminded us that infectious diseases aren’t going anywhere, so we urgently need to develop the next generation of vaccines to help protect us all.”