Could space travel research deliver a frailty vaccine?

Vaxxinity and UCF collaborate on muscle and bone wasting immunotherapies to benefit both space exploration and human longevity.

Immunotherapeutic vaccine developer Vaxxinity today revealed it is working with the University of Central Florida (UCF) on new space medicine research that will potentially benefit human longevity here on planet Earth. The grant-funded research aims to develop immunotherapies to treat and ultimately prevent muscle and bone wasting – key health challenges associated with long-term spaceflight that are also associated with human aging.

Using drug candidates derived from Vaxxinity’s platform, which is designed to selectively activate the immune system and stimulate the production of antibodies against multiple targets, the researchers will assess the effects of the immunotherapies on proteins that play a key role bone and muscle growth. The biological mechanisms implicated in the research program are linked to age-related diseases, such as osteoporosis and sarcopenia, contributing to increased morbidity and mortality, and reducing our quality of life as we age.

Longevity.Technology: With clinical-stage programs in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and hypercholesterolemia, Vaxxinity has long had its sights set on age-related disease, and this latest collaboration should also be of great interest to the longevity field. Can the company boldly go where no one has gone before and deliver a vaccine against aging? We caught up with Vaxxinity co-founder Lou Reese to find out.

Lou Reese is Vaxxinity’s co-founder and executive chairman.

A self-proclaimed “space dork,” Reese reveals he has held a lifelong belief that humanity has to become multiplanetary to survive, and that he always hoped his work at Vaxxinity could somehow contribute to achieving that.

“If humanity is to become a spacefaring species, solving fundamental problems related to space travel and living are table-stakes,” he says. “The research we are doing targeted towards space-based physical challenges is directly translatable to issues faced by humanity here on Earth. We know what we do for tomorrow will yield results for today.”

Spaceflight’s link to aging

It’s no coincidence that Vaxxinity is headquartered in Cape Canaveral, sandwiched between the rocket factories of SpaceX and Blue Origin.

“Okay, I’m not building the rockets, and I’m not redesigning the entry systems – that’s not me – but I’m doing my part to help because I think it’s really important,” says Reese. “And it so happened that in that work, we also found avenues that will help with healthy aging.”

Vaxxinity’s headquarters at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL.

According to Reese, muscle and bone wasting are two of the most important addressable areas of aging.

“Everyone knows someone who has this story,” he says. “This weakening of muscles over time, and at the exact same time, a reduction in bone density. It might not be diagnoseable as full-blown osteoporosis but it’s the general progression of aging. And, as that continues, people get wobbly. And then they fall.”

In older people, falls, regardless of any diagnosed injury, are associated with increased mortality, which increases significantly if a fall results in a fracture. 

A similar biological effect has been observed in space travellers, with NASA’s study of twin brother astronauts confirming that time spent in space has a significant impact on muscle mass and bone density, in addition to a host of other effects.

“When you look at that data, you realize the problem – if we’re gonna go to Mars, and then come right back again, everybody on that mission is going to have really significant damage,” says Reese. “Even the lunar mission matters, because those guys are going to be up there for years at a time soon, and these effects are occupational hazards, so we must address them if we can. And I thought – we can solve them.”

The road to the clinic

Reese’s confidence stems from what he claims is a “very unique” aspect of Vaxxinity’s technology.

“Unlike monoclonal antibodies, we are uniquely capable of going after multiple targets at the same time,” he says. “Which is really important if you’re going to try and go after complex targets of bone loss and muscle loss at the same time. That’s what motivated us to start the space vaccines program, which may also help the world’s aging population at the same time.”

While Vaxxinity’s muscle and bone wasting program is only now being announced publicly, Reese says that the company has been working on this for some time.

“Our work in this area was early stage, so we kept it quiet till now,” he says. “We’ve done some animal work, and examined the effects of hitting multiple biological targets – figuring out what pieces work. Now we’re telling the public about it, because it’s reached the stage where it’s become much more significant.”

At work in the Vaxxinity labs.

The next steps for the UCF collaboration will involve further preclinical work in animal models, but Reese says the company is further on than people might think.

“We need to develop a better understanding of the dosing paradigms and other components that are going to be important for pushing things forward to the clinic,” he says. “So the next steps will be a continuation of our preclinical work, but we’ve already done a lot of that work, so we’re not far from being able to start toxicology and apply for an IND and go through the process of being able to do a clinical trial.”

In terms of timing, Reese says if everything goes to plan then the program could enter human trials sometime in 2025.

“For that to happen, everything would have to line up just right,” he adds. “But this isn’t something that’s 20 years out or in the distant future – it’s in the near term.”

What does the future hold?

While there is still a long way to go before a spaceflight vaccine is ready, Reese is happy to share his vision for how things might play out in the future.

“I’d expect there would eventually be a vaccine prophylaxis protocol for long duration, low gravity exposure,” he says. “One of the benefits of a long-acting immunotherapy is that you wouldn’t have to bring as much product into space – you’re not injecting biologic drugs in quantities that have to be refrigerated, you’re injecting very small quantities of synthetic peptides. It’s a totally different burden on the medical component for a lunar base or for a multiplanetary trip.”

Back here on Earth, Reese envisages a path that begins with treatments for patients suffering muscle or bone degeneration but could one day see the technology used preventatively.

“Once you have a disruptive, population-wide, democratised and demonetised technology that can go to everybody for dollars a year, as opposed to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s where you start really having prevention as a model that can actually be employed,” he says.

Photo credit: Vaxxinity