PORTLAND, Ore. — When the coronavirus pandemic hit, it was all hands on deck at the Providence St. Joseph Health System, which covers 51 hospitals across seven states, including Oregon and Washington.
Doctors and researchers who usually focus on cancer treatments and immunotherapy quickly pivoted to COVID-19.
"We've been working on how to get the immune system to recognize cancer and eliminate it, so it was a small step to switch to how we recognize cancer cells to how do we recognize the virus," said Dr. Walter Urba.
Dr. Urba founded and has led the immunotherapy department at the Providence Cancer Institute in Portland since 1993. He recently took on an additional role as the director of research for the entire Providence St. Joseph system.
Urba, Dr. Bernard Fox, and Dr. Rom Leidner were guests on KGW's current affairs show, "Straight Talk," to talk about their work on a COVID-19 vaccine, the only one of its kind in the world.
Developing a unique vaccine
There are 20 vaccines under development worldwide and three in the U.S. that are in clinical trials.
But the vaccine being developed at Providence Cancer Institute in Portland is the only one that uses an immune stimulant, employing something called Interleukin 12 to promote an immune response.
It's based on earlier studies at the Providence Cancer Institute done by Andrew D. Weinberg, Ph.D.
"It showed when you added Interleukin 12 to older mice, it made them respond better to immunotherapy, and that's one of the reasons we're really focusing on that,” said Dr. Fox.
Researchers at Providence St. Joseph have submitted their research data to the FDA and are awaiting approval to move into phase one of a vaccine trial.
"We hope to have a green light from the FDA by the end of July, which would mean we could potentially start phase one of the trial in August," said Dr. Rom Leidner.
When they get FDA approval, Fox and Leidner plan to run two different trial age groups with healthy adults ages 18 to 50, and another with people over the age of 50.
Leidner called the component with older adults critical to their vaccine trial.
"If it doesn't work in older folks, we could be going forward doing a study with a vaccine that just wouldn't be effective for people at the highest risk of having issues if they get infected with the virus," he said.
The Providence vaccine, with its addition of immunotherapy, is more complicated than other vaccines, and other developers are further ahead in the trial process.
However, Providence researchers believe it's important to continue their work even if another vaccine gets approval for widespread use.
"We need to be ready in case other trials didn't work, especially if it didn't work in older adults. So, we think there's a place for this more complicated strategy.
We rather not wake up and make that realization at the 11th hour," Leidner said.
Meanwhile, cases of coronavirus are spiking across the country and in Oregon. The Oregon Health Authority on Friday said COVID-19 is spreading faster than expected and that since the state started reopening, Oregonians haven't done what is necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Coronavirus strains in Oregon come from all over the world
Dr. Brian Piening also joined "Straight Talk" to discuss his research on the coronavirus.
Piening is a researcher with the cancer immunogenomics laboratory at Portland's Earle A. Chiles Research Institute.
He's sort of a viral detective.
Piening usually works on genomic sequencing of cancer patients, but pivoted to working on sequencing the coronavirus.
By taking specimens from patients who test positive for the virus, he can break down the entire RNA sequence of the virus and trace its origin.
He's finding the strains in Oregon come from all over the world.
"We're seeing really across Providence patients in Oregon, strains come from pretty much every major branch that is known for COVID-19 worldwide," he said.
Virus is mutating, becoming more infectious
Piening also said their research has found the virus is mutating.
"A number of researchers in recent weeks have published data showing a novel mutation in the spike root protein called D614G. It has essentially created a new more infectious strain of Coronavirus," Piening said.
He added that doesn't mean it causes more severe cases of coronavirus, but shows it's becoming more transmissible throughout communities.
"And we are already seeing that in our data in Oregon," he said. "We are seeing about 68 percent of our samples contain this novel mutation," Piening said.
Piening noted recent data show the mutated strain is more prevalent east of the Willamette River. It's something he and other researchers are watching carefully.
Dr. Urba said researchers feel a big responsibility to find something that really makes a difference in helping to end the pandemic.
He's also encouraged to see the singular focus from the medical community on finding a lifesaving vaccine and other therapies for COVID-19.
"One of the great things is to see how people have come together. How people have worked to care for patients often at great risks to themselves. And it's been amazing to watch the research community mobilize and make things happen," he said.
The researchers at Providence Cancer Institute rely on philanthropy to fund their work; 70% of funding comes from donors. Learn more here.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Monday at 4:30 a.m. It's also available as a podcast.