St. John’s Researcher Awarded NIH Grant to Create Inhalable COVID-19 Vaccine

Nitesh K. Kunda, Ph.D.
May 24, 2022

A faculty member in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at St. John’s University recently received a $492,000 federal grant to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that will be self-administered by individuals.

Nitesh K. Kunda, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Industrial Pharmacy and Pharmaceutics in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, received a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. “A major goal of this project is to use the spike protein as an antigen and develop a novel, thermostable, and inhalable COVID-19 vaccine that is easy to scale up, eliminates the need for cold-chain storage and is self-administrable by individuals at home through simple inhalation,” Dr. Kunda explained.

The vaccine would be inhaled as a dry powder, according to Dr. Kunda. His laboratory specializes in developing dry powder biologics that do not require cold-chain storage and transport, thereby significantly decreasing the cost of biologics-based products.

“In addition, eliminating this cold-chain storage would allow for easy distribution in low- and middle-income countries with inadequate infrastructure so we can reach remote regions of the world and stockpile vaccines at a lower cost,” Dr. Kunda said.

He added that an inhalable vaccine would generate potent immune responses in the lungs, which is the primary site of infection, at a lower dose compared to that of the current vaccines administered intramuscularly.

“Through this research,” said Dr. Kunda, “we can create a platform technology for thermostable and inhalable vaccines that address many of the challenges associated with traditional vaccines, and which can be applied to develop new vaccines against a plethora of infectious diseases.”

In explaining why it is important to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that can be administered by individuals in the comfort of their homes, Dr. Kunda said, “At the peak of the pandemic, particularly in New York City—which was the epicenter of the pandemic—many of us were very anxious to leave the safety of our homes. Once we heard the news about the emergency authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, we all took a sigh of relief but, nevertheless, there were a lot of people who were very afraid to go stand in a line for hours among other people to get a vaccine shot. That ended up delaying their doses.”

“I believe having a vaccine that can be shipped to homes, very similar to the at-home COVID-19 testing we currently have, is a great alternative and would be very appealing to many people.”

“Moreover,” he said, “a vaccine that you could inhale would be more widely received by individuals than having to get a needle shot. What’s better than just breathing a dose of powder in the comfort of your home and being vaccinated!”

Dr. Kunda’s current research interests include the use of nanotechnology in developing therapeutics against infectious diseases and cancer. Before joining St. John’s in 2018, he was a postdoctoral fellow (2015–18) at the College of Pharmacy, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, with a research focus on aerosol drug and vaccine delivery.

He holds a Ph.D. (2014) in Formulation and Drug Delivery from the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University, in Liverpool, UK. Dr. Kunda’s dissertation focused on developing a novel pneumococcal vaccine that can be inhaled as a dry powder. He holds a master’s degree in Drug Delivery from the London School of Pharmacy, London, UK.