But the impetus of both projects is similar. In March, as Preston Estep, a genome scientist who lives in the Boston area, was reading about people dying amid the pandemic, he vowed not to sit complacently on the sidelines. He emailed some chemists, biologists, professors and doctors he knew to see whether any were interested in creating their own vaccine. Soon they had devised a formula for a peptide vaccine that could be administered through a spritz in the nose.
“It’s very simple,” Dr. Estep said. “It consists of five ingredients you could mix together in a physician’s office.”
The key ingredient: tiny bits of viral proteins, or peptides, which the scientists ordered online. If all went well, the peptides would train the immune system to defend against the coronavirus, even with no actual virus present.
In late April, Dr. Estep joined several collaborators in a lab as they stirred the concoction and sprayed it in their nostrils. Dr. Church, a longtime mentor to Dr. Estep, said he took it alone in his bathroom to maintain social-distancing precautions.
Dr. Estep soon gave the vaccine to his 23-year-old son, and other collaborators also shared it with their family members. So far, no one has reported anything worse than a stuffy nose and a mild headache, Dr. Estep said. He has also refined the recipe, removing and adding peptides as new coronavirus research has emerged. So far, he has sprayed eight versions into his nose.
A traditional drug development workflow begins with mouse or other animal studies. For RaDVaC, Dr. Estep said, “we are the animals.”
But without rigorous clinical trials, Dr. August said, there’s no reliable way to know if it is safe or effective. He said he feared that the scientists’ prestigious credentials might imply otherwise.