The Novo Nordisk Foundation is committing up to DKK 1.8 billion (USD 260 million) to establish a state-of-the-art research and vaccine development initiative. The aim is to create new or improved vaccines for some of the deadliest respiratory diseases, including tuberculosis (TB) and influenza. Developed in partnership with the University of Copenhagen, it is the first vaccines initiative globally to focus solely on understanding how to generate immunity in the airway itself. This is a potentially revolutionary means to block infection and prevent airborne diseases spreading between humans. A key partner in the initiative will be Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut (SSI).
Research at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Initiative for Vaccines and Immunity (NIVI) will focus initially on TB, influenza and Group A Streptococcus (GAS), which collectively cause more than 2.5 million deaths per year. There is currently no licensed GAS vaccine, while the only available TB vaccine does not prevent lung disease in adolescents and adults, and influenza vaccines have limited efficacy and provide only short-term protection.
Professor Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, sees great potential for NIVI, both in Denmark and globally.
“The development of the Covid-19 vaccines demonstrated the extraordinary possibilities when interdisciplinary vaccine research and development are prioritised,” says Krogsgaard Thomsen. “With NIVI, the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the University of Copenhagen are building on that momentum and dreaming even bigger – working towards a world where respiratory diseases no longer end the lives of millions of people every year.
“Here in Denmark, NIVI will consolidate current expertise in immunology and vaccine development, helping to establish an internationally renowned vaccine research system and ensuring that Denmark is at the forefront of translational vaccine science globally.”
Developing vaccines and advancing knowledge
Conventional vaccine design and testing typically focus on generating a systemic immune response that prevents severe disease or death. However, recipients can still get infected and pass the disease to other people. Vaccines that generate a local immune response at the site of infection – in the case of respiratory diseases, in the airways – could help prevent even mild infection, block transmission and generate long-term immunity. This could significantly reduce deaths and the burden on healthcare systems around the world.
NIVI aims to develop new vaccines for TB, influenza and GAS that generate robust, local immunity in the airways and, by extension, limit the spread of antimicrobial resistance, a global pandemic driven in part by the overuse or misuse of antibiotics against airway infections.
Furthermore, while most vaccine development initiatives focus on a single strategy, NIVI will compare different vaccine antigens, platforms, and delivery methods side by side, increasing the chances of success. In the case of delivery methods, for example, various strategies will be tested and combined, including conventional injection in the muscle and nasal sprays.
By studying three very different viral and bacterial diseases and developing a range of vaccine candidates and technologies, NIVI will significantly advance understanding of both systemic and airway immunity, helping the world to tackle existing and future airborne threats.
Bridging research and vaccine development
NIVI has a unique structure among vaccine initiatives. It comprises two entities, which together will ensure a smooth path between basic research and vaccine development up to Phase II clinical trials.
The research arm – the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Vaccines and Immunity (NCVI) – is funded via an eight-year grant and anchored in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen, which has gained global recognition for its expertise in infectious disease, immunology and technological innovation.
“Basic research carries great importance when it comes to the health and well-being of the world’s population – both present and future,” says Dean Bente M. Stallknecht from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen. “Vaccines and knowledge of immunology is a key part of that. Boosting excellent basic research within this field of research will pave the way for new discoveries and hold potential to make a huge difference to so many people all round the globe.”
She also stresses the importance of creating translational pathways that lead from basic science into impact: “We are proud that we, as a faculty and university, are involved in setting up new types of initiatives specifically designed to foster translational research. One of our finest tasks as researchers and as a university is to make our research come to life and be of use, and this is what we can do with a structure like NIVI and the link-up between university and industry.”
To this end, the Foundation has also established a limited liability company – the Novo Nordisk Foundation Vaccine Accelerator (NVAC P/S). NVAC will enable and enhance the work of NCVI by licensing and developing vaccine technologies, preparing vaccine formulations, reagents and assays, and coordinating the external clinical-grade production and clinical testing of promising vaccine candidates. Any revenue generated by NVAC will be reinvested in NIVI.
National and international partnerships
Collaboration with public and private actors will be crucial to the initiative’s success. A key partner will be Statens Serum Institut (SSI), which operates under the auspices of the Danish Ministry of the Interior and Health. SSI has substantial expertise in vaccine design and development, and highly relevant research programs and infrastructure.
“Vaccine research is crucial to ensure that we have the best possible protection against diseases in the future,” says Sophie Løhde, Minister of the Interior and Health. “There is a need for innovative solutions and public-private partnerships that can help improve vaccine research and thus public health globally. I am therefore pleased that the Novo Nordisk Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and Statens Serum Institut, will contribute to strengthening Denmark’s position as a leader in vaccine research and development.”
National and international partnerships with world-leading research teams and experts with similar ambitions will also be established in the coming years, while NVAC will seek manufacturing partnerships to ensure that promising new vaccines have real-world impact and are accessible and affordable.
NCVI and NVAC will be headed by the same person – the NIVI Executive Director/CEO, to be announced in 2024 – with the dual role ensuring close integration of the two entities. Until now, development of NIVI has been led by eminent vaccinologist and Senior Vice President of Infectious Diseases at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, Professor Peter Lawætz Andersen.
“Fundamentally, designing vaccines with a focus on generating immunity in the respiratory system is a relatively unexplored area of research with astounding potential,” he says. “We hope that NIVI’s work can help prepare us for the next pandemic or even help consign airborne epidemics to history.”
Watch this film to find out more about why NIVI is needed and how it will work:
Watch a conversation about NIVI between Novo Nordisk Foundation CEO Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, the Foundation’s head of Infectious Diseases Peter Lawætz Andersen, and head of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen, Charlotte Bonefeld:
Read more about NIVI here.