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Pandemic-proofing the world with cutting-edge vaccine technology
A University of Bath spinout company dedicated to making vaccines safer has been awarded a highly competitive UK government contract through the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI).
The aim of the two-year contract, valued at around £1.7million, is to develop the world's first thermally stable mRNA vaccine.
In its work at the university, the team behind Ensilicated Technologies Ltd (EnsiliTech) has developed ensilication – a technology that allows vaccines and other biological materials to be transported and stored without the use of refrigeration.
Dr Asel Sartbaeva, Chemistry researcher at Bath, co-founder and CEO at EnsiliTech, believes this technology has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives every year. The government contract will take her team one vital step closer to bringing it to market.
“We’re so proud to have won this important government grant,” said Dr Sartbaeva. “It comes after about 11 years of research on ensilication and means we can develop mRNA vaccines that are truly independent of the fridge and freezer.
“As transport and storage of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have been shown to cost more than the cost of many actual vaccines, removing the fridge dependence will have a truly game-changing impact on our ability to distribute vaccines all around the globe, and can help save millions of people.”
The SBRI project, titled ‘Heat proofing immunity: pioneering a thermally resilient ensilicated mRNA-LNP vaccine platform’ is part of a wider call to develop vaccines and tools to fight the next pandemic.
By the end of the pre-clinical project, the vaccine technology is expected to be ready for clinical trials. A second five-year government contract is likely to follow, by the end of which ensilication should have completed, or nearly completed, clinical trials and overcome all regulatory hurdles. The government would then be able to licence the technology from EnsiliTech when the need arises.
“This is all part of a wider push to be ready for the next pandemic,” said Dr Sartbaeva. “The government wants to be in a position to act fast with vaccine rollouts next time.”
The project will be carried out by EnsiliTech alongside two partners: Afrigen, an mRNA manufacturing and development consortium based in South Africa, and EmerVax, a Texas-based company that formulates novel vaccines against neglected diseases. The research will be funded by the Department of Health and Social Care as part of the UK Vaccine Network (UKVN) – a UK aid programme developing vaccines for diseases with epidemic potential in low and middle-income countries.
The project will focus on the development of the world's first vaccine against Hantaan virus, which is extremely prevalent in Asia and South America.
Hantaan is spread mainly by rodents and can cause, among other things, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) – a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease. There are over 200,000 global cases each year, with the number growing. A common side effect of infection is Haemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome, resulting in a mortality rate of around 15%.
Currently, no vaccine is commercially available for this highly infectious and deadly disease, leaving many communities vulnerable.
The problem with ultracold vaccine storage
As well as helping save lives directly, the EnsiliTech project is expected to result in the development of a thermally resilient mRNA vaccine platform. This means the technology, once developed to administer a thermally stable Haantan virus mRNA vaccine, will be applicable to any number of mRNA vaccines.
mRNA vaccines have a huge potential to prevent not only infectious diseases but also certain cancers and a range of other previously unpreventable conditions. However, these vaccines currently require ultracold storage, needing to be kept at -70 or even -80 °C.
The system for storing and transporting ultracold vaccines around the world comes at a global annual running cost of $35bn. Not only is this cold-chain network expensive to operate but it is also prone to failure, leading to significant levels of spoilage and waste – around half of vaccines have to be discarded as a result of such failures, denying millions of people around the world access to potentially life-saving products.
According to the UN environment programme, around 50% of vaccines spoil and must be discarded as a result of such failures. Dr Sartbaeva said: “Our ensilicated mRNA platform has the potential to revolutionise vaccine distribution, particularly in remote or resource-limited areas where maintaining cold chain storage can be challenging.
“EnsiliTech’s pioneering work in this field will contribute to advancing global health and improving accessibility to life-saving vaccines.”
The Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) supports research and development of solutions to public sector challenges. Any organisation of any size can apply for funding.
Video - Dr Asel Sartbaeva explains the importance of keeping vaccines stable at all temperatures
The University of Bath
The University of Bath is one of the UK's leading universities for high-impact research with a reputation for excellence in education, student experience and graduate prospects.
We are named ‘University of the Year’ in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023, and ranked among the world’s top 10% of universities, placing 148th in the QS World University Rankings 2024. We are ranked 5th in the UK in the Complete University Guide 2024, 6th in the Guardian University Guide 2024 and 8th in the The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024.
Bath is rated in the world’s top 10 universities for sport in the QS World University Ranking by Subject 2023. We produce some of the world’s most job-ready graduates and were named University of the Year for Graduate Jobs by the Daily Mail University Guide 2024, as well as ranking as one of the world’s top 90 universities for employer reputation according to the QS World University Rankings 2024.
Research from Bath is helping to change the world for the better. Across the University’s three Faculties and School of Management, our research is making an impact in society, leading to low-carbon living, positive digital futures, and improved health and wellbeing.
EnsiliTech is a Bristol-based startup, which spun out from the University of Bath in July 2022. In January 2023, EnsiliTech had finalised a first, oversubscribed, pre-seed investment round of £1.2M. This consisted of an Innovate UK grant and private investment from Science Angels Syndicate, Fink Family Office, QantX, and angels.
Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines is a Cape Town based biotechnology company strategically directed, supported and capitalized by Avacare Healthcare Group and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) of South Africa. It was founded in 2014 by Infectious Diseases Research Institute (IDRI) and Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) in Seattle. Afrigen drives a business strategy focussing on product development, bulk adjuvant manufacturing, and supply and distribution of key biologicals to address unmet healthcare needs. Through international partnerships and local capacity building, Afrigen has established the first ever adjuvant production and formulation technology centre on the African continent.
A spin out from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and the Galveston National Laboratory based in Galveston, Texas. Founded in 2021, EmerVax is developing vaccines against emerging viral infections with potential to cause epidemics or pandemics similar to COVID-19.
A UK-based company, with a team of over 30 carefully selected and highly experienced staff has extensive expertise in supporting projects ranging from pre-clinical and clinical development, pharmaceutical licensing in the EU and US, medical technology research and other healthcare management activities.
About the UK Vaccine Network
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) is the UK Government department which is responsible for helping people to live more independent, healthier lives for longer. This investment is part of the UK Vaccine Network (UKVN). UKVN was established to provide funding to support the development of promising vaccines and vaccine technologies that will help combat infectious diseases that have epidemic potential in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). UKVN is an UK Aid investment, which means all projects funded must support research primarily and directly for the benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).