Department of Pharmacology,
University of Cambridge,
Tennis Court Road,
t: 01223 334176
2023 Mark Howarth. All rights reserved.
The theme of our research is Innovating Protein Technologies for Therapeutics and Vaccine Design. We have a number of project areas
running in the lab, ranging from fundamental analysis of protein interactions through to clinical application.
Immuno-engineering and Global Health
Developing an effective vaccine may be the most effective way to improve human health. We have established an approach to
accelerate vaccine development, through our Plug-and-Protect platform. A limiting factor in vaccine generation is the difficulty of
turning a promising target protein into the kind of assembly that would give long-lasting disease protection. We showed rapid and
efficient decoration of virus-like particles, which elicited a strong immune response even with only a single injection. We have
demonstrated potent immunization towards the global health challenge of malaria, working with collaborators at Oxford University’s
Jenner Institute. This approach is now being used by many groups against cancer and various infectious diseases, e.g. HIV, influenza,
outbreak pathogens (including Covid-19), and veterinary diseases. The Plug-and-Protect platform has entered Phase I clinical trials for
Covid-19, with trials for further diseases in preparation. Our lab’s current focus is the tailoring of antigens and protein cages, as well as
establishing principles of immune signalling, to develop a subsequent generation of vaccine systems for enhanced protection against
the most challenging diseases.
A New Generation of Protein Interactions: Superglues from Bacteria
We have harnessed an amazing feature of the surface of the pathogenic bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. This enabled us to form a
spontaneous isopeptide bond between genetically-encoded protein and peptide partners. This interaction is unbreakable, including
against high forces in biological systems (blood flow, cell migration, molecular motors). Our favourite pair, SpyTag with SpyCatcher, is
one of the strongest protein interactions ever measured. SpyTag is now being applied by hundreds of labs around the world for
diverse areas of basic research and biotechnology. SpyTag is about to enter clinical trials to enhance the targeting of CAR-T cell cancer
therapy. We have used computational design and evolution through phage display to create the first genetically-encoded interaction
reacting at the diffusion limit and approaching infinite affinity. We are extending this new class of protein interaction, to create novel
possibilities for synthetic biology, including antibody teams for combinatorial control of cell signalling, for more potent targeting of
Unique Protein Architectures for Cell Imaging and Therapy
Studying the limits of cancer cell capture made clear that even the best antibody interactions are not good enough. We have
developed a new class of binding proteins that form covalent bonds to endogenous protein targets. NeissLock was engineered from
an adhesion system from Neisseria meningitidis and forms an anhydride in response to calcium, reacting irreversibly with neighbouring
proteins. Protein ligands that never let go of their targets should reduce the detection limit of soluble biomarkers for early diagnosis;
we are progressing this technology towards long-acting therapeutics and enhanced cell therapy of cancer.
Gastrobodies for targeting in the gut
The gut is highly effective at degrading proteins. This has prevented the use of antibodies or antibody mimetics for therapeutic targeting
in the gut. There are a huge range of bacterial/viral infections, cancers and autoimmune diseases where targeting within the gut could
give benefit. We harnessed a protein from soybean with exceptional resistance to the high hydrochloric acid and pepsin concentrations
of the stomach.
By computational design and evolution, we established a new antibody mimetic called the gastrobody. Gastrobodies could bind and
inhibit a C. difficile toxin important for disease progression. We are currently developing the potential of this new targeting platform
towards a range of applications in animal and human health.
Get in contact for further information about any of these projects, or to discuss the possibility of working on other projects in the area
of synthetic biology / vaccines / cancer biology.