Researchers Awarded $1.8 Million Grant to Create Temperature-Stable Vaccines

Multi-institutional team’s work could speed drug creation, improve safety and lower costs

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Sarah Perry, chemical engineering, is part of a multi-institutional team that has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant totaling $1.8 million for a project that could improve the stability of future vaccines.

Sarah Perry
UMass Amherst associate professor Sarah Perry

A $649,767 portion of the four-year grant, awarded to Perry through the NSF’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future (DMREF) program, will support her work on the “A Computationally-Driven Predictive Framework for Stabilizing Viral Therapies” project.

The current method for stabilizing vaccines is mostly a process of trial-and-error, Perry says. Her team’s approach will combine experiments in the lab with a machine learning algorithm to sort through massive amounts of complex data produced to extract the best results.

New generations of biologic drugs are developed from living sources and tend to be more sensitive to temperature changes. This has been seen most recently with the storage and delivery challenges associated with several of the COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines and many other biologic drugs remain dependent on a “cold chain,” or low-temperature-controlled supply chain, to maintain efficacy. The logistics and expense of maintaining such a cold chain increase the cost and limit the availability of such treatments. Popular biologics currently on the market include Botox, insulin, arthritis drugs Humira and Enbrel, the cancer drug Herceptin and the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

“If you’re on an antibody treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, you have to plan your life around that medicine,” Perry says. “If you’re going on vacation, how are you going to travel with it? How are you going to keep your medicine [viable] if the power goes out?”

Data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that at least 15 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine alone have been thrown away since March 1.

While the work under the grant is focusing on viruses, what is learned could be applicable to more complex drugs, Perry says.

“This could go beyond viruses to other types of vaccines, or other kinds of medical therapeutics,” she says. “We’re hoping to have a solid, molecularly informed view of how to design temperature-stable formulations.”

That ability would speed the creation, decrease the cost and improve the safety of future drugs, she added.

Perry’s colleagues are Sapna Sarupria, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, and Caryn Heldt, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan Technological University. Perry’s lab will create the materials, while Sarupria’s will provide the computational model and Heldt’s will study the virus and its interactions with excipients, or inactive substances used to deliver the active ingredients. Perry and Heldt are also partners on National Institutes of Health-funded research investigating a different strategy for stabilizing viruses.

It’s notable that the project is an all-female team, Perry says.

“I’d honestly be surprised if there were more than a handful ever – or maybe we’re the first all-female team – on one of these DMREF grants,” Perry said. “it’s a big deal, and we’re hoping that it will become less of a big deal in the future because it will be more common.”