Austin, Minn. — On Friday, September 22, The Hormel Institute hosted the Viral Vector Core Consortium Workshop, where academic experts and industry leaders from across the country gathered to share progress and explore opportunities for future collaborations that could accelerate the transition of life-changing genetic treatments from bench to bedside.
The field of genetic medicine is rapidly advancing—and viral vector based systems play an essential role in its continued progress.
Naturally, since viruses depend on cells as part of their normal life cycle, entering cells is something they do best. Bioengineered viral vectors can capitalize on this quality for our advantage. To do so, the harmful genes of a virus are removed, and the virus’s capsid (its shell) is used as a shipping container of sorts to transport desired genetic material directly into a cell.
“Viruses have an incredible natural ability to deliver genetic material to the cell and directly to the nucleus,” said Dr. George Aslanidi, Professor at The Hormel Institute. “Recombinant viruses or viral vectors bioengineered in the lab are a usually harmless delivery system used for genetic manipulation of cells and tissues.”
Many applications of viral vectors are being studied, and gene therapy is one such application. There are currently several FDA-approved viral vector based genetic therapies for inherited diseases and cancers.
“Viral vectors have a proven record of being effective for the treatment of a variety of genetic diseases and cancers. They can deliver healthy copies of dysfunctional genes and restore normal function of cells and tissues,” Dr. Aslanidi said. “Viral vectors are also used beyond genetic disorders as vaccines to protect against infectious diseases and cancers, and also as an oncolytic to directly destroy malignant cells. Additionally, viruses can be used to genetically modify cells for cellular therapies with lymphoid or bone marrow cells as treatment modalities.”
Viral vectors also have the potential for wider use in personalized medicine.
“Among 7,000 identified genetic abnormalities, only a small number can be treated with synthetic drugs, protein replacement, or bone marrow or other cell/tissue transplants. These populations of patients are small, with only one to two cases to several hundred per one million births,” said Dr. Aslanidi. “Individualized approach is absolutely necessary to ensure appropriate treatment. The viral vector technology possesses necessary flexibility to be used for different indications. VVC facilities capable of timely producing a sufficient amount of individualized treatments are critical for providing therapeutic options to these cohorts of patients.”
One of the primary challenges currently keeping approved gene therapies from wider use in clinics, and delaying the translation of future therapy options to in-clinic use, is the need for more streamlined production of viral vectors, which was a frequent subject of discussion throughout the day.
“The VVCC Workshop is bringing together academic and industry professionals with the hope to develop an innovative viral vector production facility, enhance existing capacities for production, and ensure accessibility of novel treatments to patients,” said Dr. Aslanidi.
Dr. Aslanidi posited that The Hormel Institute is one such location that has the potential to introduce a viral vector production facility, considering its proximity to and partnerships with healthcare providers at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic, among other factors.
Keynote speakers were Junghae Suh, PhD, Vice President, Gene Therapy Accelerator Unit, Biogen, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and H. Trent Spencer, PhD, President/Co-founder of Expression Therapeutics, Professor, Pediatrics, Emory University, Director, Cell and Gene Therapy, Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Additional speakers included George Aslanidi, PhD, Professor, The Hormel Institute, UMN, Christina Pacak, PhD, Assistant Professor, Neurology, UMN, and Thomas Yezzi, MSc, Founder/Chief Executive Officer, Nu-Tek BioSciences, Austin, MN.
Over the lunch hour, attendees participated in discussions guided by prompts related to developing genetic therapies and vector production. Responses they shared were used to shape the panel discussion that concluded the day.
Dr. Aslandi moderated a panel discussion that included Dr. Pacak, Scott McIvor, PhD, Chief Development Officer, Immusoft, Professor, Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, UMN, Masato Yamamoto, MD, PhD, Professor, Eugene C. and Gail V. Sit Chair in Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Cancer Research, Vice-Chair of Surgical Science, Surgery, UMN, Sandra Wells, PhD, Director, Office of Discovery and Translation, Clinical and Translational Science Institute, UMN—as well as various attendees.