In the world of regulatory toxicology, it’s all about finding the caveats
Maia Araujo-Abrahim is no stranger to pandemics. Her native Brazil—where she trained as a scientist—was the epicenter of the Zika epidemic, the mosquito-borne virus that severely impacted the Americas. Today, she is part of the global hunt to find a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2.
Her laboratory in Laval, a city in southwestern Quebec, is working on a number of different vaccine candidates, including genetically engineered vaccines that take information from the genome of the virus to create a blueprint of select antigens. Using gene therapy to create vaccines is a relatively new idea . Most traditional vaccines are live attenuated—where the virus is weakened slightly to induce an immune response without disease—or inactivated where the virus is killed. It is the job of Maia’s lab to understand, in animals, how the viral DNA contained in the vaccine is distributed in tissue that it is designed to reach. The two key questions her lab must answer: Is the vaccine working, and is it causing changes to the tissue that suggests it may be toxic? The information obtained from these studies helps determine if the vaccine can move forward into the clinic.
These kinds of studies—called biodistribution studies—are fairly common in the study of biologics, which gene therapies are. So are the repeat dose studies her lab is doing in rats to further evaluate drug toxicity.
Yet, these are not common times. Laboratories are in a singular war to find products that can stand a chance against SARS-CoV-2, which spreads quickly and has shown surprising versatility in the way it attacks its victims. The work is harder because, by necessity, it must be done faster. Gone are the days where drug development moved forward in linear fashion. Many COVID-19 projects are being done simultaneously, introducing a whole new paradigm in global pharmaceutical development.
“For all my projects I need to make sure everything goes well,” says Maia. “This one is even more important because of the pandemic. When we work on drugs, we know it will make a difference in certain populations. In this case it is everybody. My family in Brazil, it is everybody. It makes a big impact in our lives.”
Scientists, by nature, are trained to remain objective. But Maia still has a hard time escaping the stress of living through COVID-19. Brazil just surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID, topped only by the US. She has no idea when she will be able to see her parents again. She has coworkers with shared custody arrangements not able to see their children, and others with teenagers who cannot understand why they can’t hang out with their friends like they used to do. “I think everyone has a story,” says Maia.