Prof. Matthew DeLisa (above), Swiftscale Bio cofounder.

February 19, 2021

E. Coli Undergoes Reinvention, Becomes a Revolutionary Scientific Tool

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Driven by the desire to end the devastation caused by the pandemic, Prof. Matthew DeLisa, chemical engineering, turned E. coli bacterium into a powerful biotechnology tool to yield fast answers to COVID-19 questions.

While the U.S. struggles to distribute its supply of COVID-19 vaccines, DeLisa and colleagues have made a breakthrough on a unique approach to developing antibodies for vaccines.

The cell-free technique cultures E. coli bacteria to produce glycoproteins — molecular identification cards that the immune system employs to recognize and halt viruses such as COVID-19.

“The carbohydrate [region of glycoproteins] is like a fingerprint of the pathogen,” DeLisa said. “By learning to recognize that carbohydrate fingerprint as a foreign substance, your body mounts an immune response to attack it when encountered again.”

This simple yet efficient technique behind glycoproteins is called a conjugate vaccine, since it is reliant on the linkage, or conjugation, between the sugar and protein regions that is performed by the cultured E. coli.

In contrast to traditional techniques using mammal cells, which cost around $500 and take nine months to a year to provide significant data, E. coli cultures only cost $12 and have significantly shorter generation times.

With COVID-19 variants on the rise, even within the Cornell community, the technology has significant implications for rapid adaptive vaccines in response to minor glycoprotein changes that can be produced at a much lower cost and higher efficiency. 

“[However], there remains a significant amount of optimizing, in terms of molecular design and composition, as well as the hurdles that remain for truly realizing a distributed manufacturing paradigm,” DeLisa said.

Should implementation move further down the line, the vaccine design’s capacity to withstand freeze-drying gives it an edge over current available vaccines, which require expensive refrigeration storages and limit accessibility.

In the current state of overall vaccine production, large-scale facilities rely on refrigerated supply chains that are also expensive and difficult to maintain, sometimes costing hundreds of millions of dollars or more, according to DeLisa.

“The freeze-drying process is like that of freeze-drying fruit, where the goal is to remove all the water at low heat under vacuum,” DeLisa said. “We are freeze-drying cellular extracts that have the molecular machinery to make the vaccine. This allows us to make the vaccine when you need it, where you need it.”

This cell-free technology was the very basis for the Swiftscale Biologics startup, which was established in April 2020.

As a cofounder of Swiftscale Biologics, DeLisa hopes that his research will inspire scientists, engineers and drug-makers to invest more time and energy into solving the challenges associated with global access to essential medicines.

 “We are optimistic that emerging bio-manufacturing technologies such as ours will help democratize access to life-saving medicines,” DeLisa said. “[Our work is inspired] by the growing need to rethink how medicines are produced and distributed.”