LLNL joins Human Vaccines Project to accelerate vaccine development and understanding of immune response

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will lend its expertise in vaccine research — most recently from designing new antibodies and antiviral drugs for COVID-19 — and computing resources to the Human Vaccines Project consortium to aid development of a universal coronavirus vaccine and improve understanding of immune response. Shown is a simulation of a computationally designed antibody interacting with the receptor binding domain of the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Graphic courtesy of Dan Faissol/LLNL.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has joined the international Human Vaccines Project (HVP), bringing Lab expertise and computing resources to the consortium to aid development of a universal coronavirus vaccine and improve understanding of immune response.

The HVP is a nonprofit, public-private partnership with a mission to decode the human immune system and accelerate the development of vaccines and immunotherapies across major global diseases. The Project brings together leading academic research centers, industrial partners, nonprofits and governments to answer core questions about how the human immune system fights disease and pioneer a new era in human health.

Under the three-year agreement with HVP, LLNL will leverage its extensive knowledge in vaccine research response — most recently from designing new antibodies and antiviral drugs for COVID-19 — its emerging work on artificial intelligence (AI) and computational modeling of immune response and sepsis, as well as its computational infrastructure and scientists, to help accelerate development of vaccines and other medical countermeasures that could be protective against pandemic threats. A universal coronavirus vaccine or therapeutic would be effective against an entire family of related viruses, including variants of concern such as Delta, and available “off-the-shelf” for deployment in areas of high risk to prevent severe illness and avoid future pandemics.

“While there has been impressive progress in terms of diagnosing and deploying a vaccine in as short as a year, even that is unacceptable in its cost, and there is a whole lot of work left to be done to radically accelerate this process and mitigate loss and suffering,” said Shankar Sundaram, director of LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering. “Being pre-emptive and ultra-rapid is the goal for us, and that requires advanced multi-disciplinary technical capabilities that do not exist today. While amazing progress has been achieved already, we must work with domain experts to attain the quantum leap necessary to be truly prepared and have a timely response that is less serious than what we had with COVID-19.”

Through the HVP consortium, leading bioinformatics researchers work with top vaccine scientists to design, implement and analyze outputs from the project’s scientific studies. Current academic partners include the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, the University of California, San Diego and the Telethon Kids Institute and biopharmaceutical companies including GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Janssen, Moderna, Pfizer, Novavax and Seqirus.

“We are honored to welcome Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to the Human Vaccines Project network, where we’re focused on decoding the human immune system to advance next-generation vaccines and therapeutics for major global diseases,” said Wayne Koff, president and CEO of HVP. “LLNL’s extensive capabilities in supercomputing, machine learning and computational modeling — most recently applied to advance COVID-19 antibody and vaccine design — coupled with HVP’s comprehensive set of immune monitoring and systems biological tools, offers real potential to advance development of universal coronavirus vaccines to prevent future pandemics.”

LLNL scientists are applying artificial intelligence to control of immune response by using clinical data to guide development and calibration of an innate immune response agent-based model. Reinforcement learning is then used to produce human-interpretable treatment strategies for simulated patients. Graphic courtesy of Dan Faissol/LLNL (generated on STRING).

Using tools such as AI-driven platforms and high performance computing, LLNL scientists want to help the broader HVP consortium more efficiently explore the design space for vaccines and contribute to developing a model of the human immune system to better predict the safety and efficacy of vaccines in diverse populations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, LLNL researchers used Lab supercomputers and machine learning platforms to perform predictive modeling for therapeutic drug design, virtually screening possible antibodies and small molecules as potential drug candidates against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers hope to carry over their success in molecular design, conducting virtual trials and experimentally synthesizing drug and antibody candidates for COVID-19 to the consortium. LLNL researchers – in a collaboration with the University of Vermont — also have demonstrated the utility of advanced AI techniques in learning and predicting innate human immune response, identifying more effective treatment policies for sepsis.

“Our work to accelerate the development of new antibodies and vaccines by integrating high-performance simulation with machine learning methods advanced rapidly through our work on antibody design for COVID-19,” said Jim Brase, LLNL’s deputy associate director for Computing. “Working with HVP, we’ll be able to expand our efforts to prepare these new tools for future pandemics and to apply them to a broad range of medical needs.”

LLNL not only shares similar goals with the HVP for public good and impact through advanced science and technology, but the consortium’s aims also align with some of the Lab’s key mission challenges, including biosecurity and mitigating threats to health security, said Pat Falcone, LLNL’s deputy director for Science and Technology.

“We have a unique and capable tool set that we develop and apply for transformative impact in our own mission areas, including preparedness to meet future challenges that may include pandemics and other biothreats,” Falcone said. “The opportunity to be a part of a diverse community such as the HVP enables us to learn more from experts in other key domains in this area, contribute to understanding immunology and vaccine design, and overall, to sharpen our tools and understanding in important scientific areas.”

LLNL is currently exploring concepts for a universal coronavirus vaccine underpinned by a predictive understanding of the human immune response. It intends to engage in an exchange of experts and ideas with the HVP in the coming years. Under the auspices of the consortium, the Lab will work with fellow HVP members and vaccine and immunology groups to develop proposals for outside funding.

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