Academy of Finland grants significant funding to the University of Helsinki for coronavirus vaccine and drug development

The Academy of Finland has selected the projects to be funded in the call for research into COVID-19 vaccines and drugs. A total of €10 million of special funding was awarded, of which researchers of the University of Helsinki received more than half.

Funding was granted to 15 researchers working at the University of Helsinki. Six of the 10 projects that received funding are consortia, of which three are coordinated by the University of Helsinki, each of which gained more than a million euros in funds.

In addition to the consortia, the Academy of Finland granted funds to individual projects, of which a project headed by Professor Anu Kantele received the largest individual grant, over €1.5 million. The project, collaboratively carried out by the University of Helsinki, the Helsinki University Hospital and the Finnish Red Cross Blood Service, investigates protective immune response and the application of convalescent plasma therapy.

The urgent Academy of Finland special funding round supported high-quality projects that are already conducting SARS-CoV-2 vaccine and drug development research or research into the efficacy, safety and impact of coronavirus vaccines and medicines.

iCOIN: Therapies through cloning and other means

iCOIN, a consortium headed by Professor Olli Vapalahti, is developing effective drug therapies aimed at rapidly and globally reducing the severity and lethality of the coronavirus disease. The multidisciplinary consortium is, together with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, developing therapies by employing a range of approaches: for example, antibodies are cloned from the cells of the immune system of individuals who have recovered from the disease, while research is conducted to identify viral inhibitors from drugs already proven to be safe.

Through molecular-level structural analyses, information is sought on the binding of antibodies and pharmaceutical agents to viral structures, which also helps in designing binders. Additionally, the consortium is developing animal models to be used in investigating inhibitor molecules.

FINCOVAC: Looking for an effective and safe vaccine

Professor Kalle Saksela’s FINCOVAC consortium focuses on rapid vaccine development, with the goal of developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine that could be manufactured on an industrial scale in Finland. The project is based on the Ad5 vector technique, which has already been utilised in research on gene therapies for cancer and vascular diseases, as well as in clinical trials involving a large number of patients.

A vaccine candidate that induces an immune response is already in the production stage, ready to be tested on laboratory animals in the summer. The funding will help develop and test several vaccine candidates, of which the best will be advanced all the way to the preparative phase of the last stage of clinical trials.

CoVIDD: Molecules to modify viral multiplication in humans?

CoVIDD, a consortium headed by Academy of Finland Research Fellow Markku Varjosalo, investigates how interactions between the coronavirus and host cell proteins can be used as a basis for drug development. In the project, three groups from the University of Helsinki together with a group from the University of Eastern Finland are studying molecules that are able to modify the replication of the coronavirus in humans.

The consortium employs a multidisciplinary approach to testing pharmaceutical agents already approved as drugs for human use, as the deployment of approved drug molecules in treatment is considerably faster than identifying entirely new molecules. The project focuses on human proteins which can be used to avoid potential problems related to drug efficacy, since coronavirus proteins rapidly evolve as the epidemic progresses. In the project, existing drugs developed against human proteins and their combinations are tested for their ability to inhibit viral replication.

List of COVID-19 special funding recipients