Iowa awards $2 million CARES Act grant to universities to study COVID-19 nanovaccine

Balaji Narasimhan in a Nanovaccine Institute lab on the Iowa State campus.

Iowa State's Balaji Narasimhan will lead an Iowa State University-University of Iowa effort to develop a nanovaccine to fight off COVID-19 infections. The researchers are affiliated with the Nanovaccine Institute based at Iowa State. One of the institute's laboratories is shown here. Larger photo. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa – A $2 million grant of federal CARES Act funding distributed by the state of Iowa will support university research of a nanovaccine to protect against COVID-19 infections.

The project will build on previous research and existing patents by Iowa State University and University of Iowa researchers affiliated with the Nanovaccine Institute based at Iowa State. The fast-track project is expected to be largely completed by the end of the year.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the grant today. It will be administered though the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“This is an exemplar of the value of Iowa State University’s land-grant mission – having world-class faculty and scientists with the expertise and innovation to tackle an urgent, complex problem to benefit Iowans and the world,” said Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen. “Development of a COVID-19 nanovaccine will be a game-changer for the pandemic response, and we are proud to have Dr. Narasimhan and his team at the forefront of this critically important project.”

Development of a next-generation nanovaccine is expected to address some of the limitations of current vaccine candidates, according to a project summary. Unlike many of the more than 100 coronavirus vaccines under development, a nanovaccine will be needle-free, single-dose and won’t require refrigeration. It is expected to provide long-term protection against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“This approach exploits ISU’s strengths in nanovaccine platform technology and UI’s expertise in SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virology, immunity, and unique animal models,” said Iowa State’s Balaji Narasimhan, the project leader, director of the Nanovaccine Institute, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and the Vlasta Klima Balloun Faculty Chair in Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Additional leaders of the project include Iowa State’s Michael Wannemuehler, associate director of the Nanovaccine Institute and a professor of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine; and Iowa’s Kevin Legge, a professor in the departments of pathology as well as microbiology and immunology.

The researchers will also collaborate with several industry partners: Skroot Laboratory Inc., a wireless sensor startup based in Ames; Zeteo Biomedical, a drug delivery device startup based in Austin, Texas; and Southwest Research Institute, a manufacturing-support nonprofit based in San Antonio, Texas. The project will also share equipment and expertise with vaccine companies with operations in Iowa.

Nanovaccines against a virus work by loading viral proteins into nanoparticles. Those nanoparticles are about 300 billionths of a meter across and are made from biodegradable polymers. The nanoparticles are incorporated into a nasal spray and delivered with a sniff. Exposure to the nanovaccine triggers the immune system to attack the virus.

“Our approach will result in the development and pre-clinical testing of a novel SARS-CoV-2 nanovaccine that will overcome current shortcomings and be ready for clinical trials with multiple partners,” the researchers wrote. “This work has the potential to address an urgent public health need and jumpstart Iowa’s economy.”