Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering enters academic-industry partnership to create next generation vaccines

A $10.5 million contract from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will help University of Chicago researchers collaborate with industry to create vaccines with fewer side effects.

UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) professor Aaron Esser-Kahn is taking his years of research on vaccine adjuvants — ingredients that help boost the immune response in vaccines — and combining it with the expertise of Inimmune Inc., a biotech company developing the next generation of immunotherapies.

With the help of faculty across UChicago, the team aims to create a flu vaccine that has fewer side effects, making it safer for vulnerable populations. The new five-year contract will fund the research necessary to prepare the vaccine for human clinical trials.

“We’re doing the work to make it clear that we could reduce side effects substantially,” Esser-Kahn said. “Our goal is to make a safer flu vaccine for the elderly, and we need to make the case for why ours would be better than others.”

Elderly people who receive the flu vaccine, often a higher dose shot, are more likely to develop side effects, including pain, headache, and fatigue.

A new vaccine would build on Esser-Kahn’s work in immunomodulators, small molecules added to vaccine adjuvants that allow for better regulation of the body’s immune response. Immunomodulators work by changing the signaling activity of innate immune pathways within the body, and in previous work, Esser-Kahn and his team analyzed 40,000 combinations of molecules to find the top performers. The best combinations increased antibody response from a flu vaccine and reduced inflammation from a typhoid vaccine.

Inimmune is developing new classes of adjuvants for vaccines and stand-alone immunotherapies to treat a variety of illnesses, including cancer, allergies, and autoimmune diseases. They have successfully advanced a candidate immunotherapy for the treatment of allergic rhinitis into Phase I clinical trials, in addition to a deep pipeline of rapidly advancing programs. With the award, the two teams will combine synthetic and product development expertise with Esser-Kahn’s immunomodulator to create a candidate flu vaccine.

To do so, they will work with faculty across campus to make hundreds of versions of immunomodulator molecules to find the best fit for use in a vaccine formulation. They want to formulate the top candidate for use in mRNA vaccines, which have grown in popularity since their widespread use during the COVID-19 pandemic. The collaborators will also determine best practices for safety, sourcing, production, and formulation.

“The hope is that five years from now, we have enough data to be ready for a Phase I clinical trial,” Esser-Kahn said.

Once the adjuvant/immunomodulator technology enters clinical trials, it could ultimately be used in a variety of other vaccines — including in immunotherapies for cancer, where patients often suffer from numerous side effects.

“It’s exciting to collaborate with researchers at the University of Chicago to advance the field of vaccine science and increase the availability of safe and effective vaccine adjuvants,” said Dr. Kendal Ryter, co-founder and Vice President of Manufacturing and Development of Inimmune, who will be leading the sub-contract to advance the novel adjuvant system toward the clinic. “We believe the technologies discovered at UChicago have tremendous potential to advance effective vaccines for some of the most impactful diseases in the world.”