ST Asians of the Year: Japanese expert charts a radical path with DNA vaccine

Dr Ryuichi Morishita of Osaka University is experimenting with DNA vaccines against infectious diseases like Covid-19, as well as intractable diseases like cancer and hypertension.
Dr Ryuichi Morishita of Osaka University is experimenting with DNA vaccines against infectious diseases like Covid-19, as well as intractable diseases like cancer and hypertension.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Dr Ryuichi Morishita of Osaka University's medical school is a taciturn man with a big vision of developing a DNA vaccine against the coronavirus.

But the odds are stacked against the clinical gene therapist. For one thing, he is charting a radical path in the field of biopharmaceuticals: The idea of DNA vaccines is so novel that they are not yet approved for human use.

The World Health Organisation, while noting that many aspects of the human body's immune system response to a DNA vaccine are not yet understood, said: "This has not impeded significant progress towards the use of this type of vaccine in humans."

Dr Morishita is experimenting with DNA vaccines against infectious diseases like Covid-19, as well as intractable diseases like cancer and hypertension.

Unlike conventional vaccines, which involve injecting either a weakened or inactivated version of the virus or the pathogen to trigger the immune response, DNA vaccines encode the genetic protein of the target pathogen.

This means that only the DNA code of the disease - and not the pathogen itself - gets injected directly into the human cell to induce the production of antibodies.

Dr Morishita, 58, said last week that such vaccines will be easier to develop since they do not involve cultivating the virus itself. They can also be produced in weeks, compared with the months that conventional vaccines take, he said.

The vaccine may take three or four doses to be effective, but each dose may cost as low as US$4 (S$5), he said.

Some have questioned the science behind his project.

But the potential for a Covid-19 DNA vaccine has trebled the market valuation of his Osaka-based company AnGes Inc to 161.9 billion yen (S$2.1 billion) on Wednesday from March.

Dr Morishita, born in Soja city in Okayama prefecture, earned his medical degree and PhD from Osaka University, where he has spent almost his entire career except for a five-year Stanford University stint.

The Japanese government is backing his research, devoting 11.4 billion yen in grants to AnGes to develop and produce the DNA vaccine against Covid-19.

The vaccine has undergone successful human clinical trials in Osaka, with larger-scale tests planned across Japan and the Asia- Pacific.

Dr Morishita expects the vaccine to be ready by the first half of next year, and said it will be effective even if the coronavirus were to mutate, given that the various strains of the virus have similar genetic codes.