Physicists, chemists and immunologists at McMaster University have teamed up to modify red blood cells to carry viral agents that can safely trigger the immune system to defend the body against SARS-CoV-2, creating a promising new vaccine delivery vehicle.

The new method, described in the journal PLOS ONE, is a completely unique approach to vaccination. RBC membranes include SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins, which then form virus-like particles.

“We take red blood cells and remove everything from the inside. We then attach the spike proteins to their outside to mimic the corona virus,” explained graduate student Isabella Passos-Gastaldo, lead author of the paper.

The particles that activate the immune system and produce antibodies in mice are completely harmless.

“Existing vaccine delivery methods often elicit dramatic immune system responses and have a short-lived response,” explained Mikel Reinstadter, Senior Research Supervisor and McMaster Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Some of the vaccines that have been developed have shown side effects. This delivery platform opens up new possibilities for vaccines and therapeutics,” the scientist added.

The researchers found that cells can be loaded with high doses of viral proteins, but they are likely to cause few side effects, making the new method more tolerable and effective than other vaccine options.

“We have developed a method by which we can elicit an immune response without the use of genetic material, and in doing so, we can synthesize these particles in a very short time,” said Sebastian Himbert, lead author of the study.

This technology can be quickly adapted to develop vaccines for variants of the coronavirus or new viruses that may emerge in the future.