Georgia State Biomedical Scientists Join the Global Race to Fight COVID-19
ATLANTA—A multidisciplinary team of six researchers in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University is combining their expertise in life-threatening, infectious diseases and chronic inflammatory diseases to develop therapeutics and vaccines to fight coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
“What’s so critical and really needed is developing therapeutics as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Jian-Dong Li, director of the Institute for Biomedical Sciences and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Inflammation and Immunity at Georgia State. “We’re taking advantage of the strategies we have developed in the past studying other life-threatening viruses and using the lessons we have learned to develop effective therapeutics for fighting COVID-19.
“Also, while developing therapeutics is urgently needed, vaccines are absolutely required for preventing people from getting this disease. Because of the time that vaccine development takes, scientists in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences have already started to take action to develop effective vaccines.”
The institute’s researchers have extensive experience studying Ebola virus, influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial viruses and other infectious and chronic inflammatory diseases.
Although their work has focused on understanding and developing therapeutics for other pathogens, their approaches are likely applicable to COVID-19. Three researchers in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences are working to develop treatments for COVID-19:
Christopher Basler, professor and director of the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis, and also a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Microbial Pathogenesis, is seeking to identify candidate therapeutics that inhibit viral genome replication of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19. He will apply lessons and strategies learned from his work with Ebola virus to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 using a variety of approaches. Basler is also collaborating with clinical investigators to better understand the progression of COVID-19 in human patients.
Richard Plemper, a Distinguished University Professor, has previously developed effective therapeutics to control influenza by inducing genetic error catastrophe in the virus, leading to the virus’ death. A compound developed in collaboration with Emory Institute for Drug Development has been chosen as a therapeutic candidate for testing against COVID-19. Plemper now applies his ferret and human airway epithelium organoid infection models to SARS-CoV-2 and will conduct drug screening studies to determine dosing and efficacy.
Traditional drug development is time-consuming and expensive. In contrast, drug repurposing, which finds new uses for existing drugs, has been encouraging for treating difficult diseases because it’s safe, takes a shorter amount of time and costs less money.
Dr. Jian-Dong Li will use drug repurposing strategy to develop anti-inflammatory agents for controlling overactive inflammation in COVID-19. Overactive inflammation is one of the key reasons for patient deaths from COVID-19. To effectively treat COVID-19, a combination therapy of antiviral and anti-inflammatory drugs would be ideal to both inhibit the virus and reduce inflammation. Li’s goal is to identify an existing anti-inflammatory drug that can be paired with antiviral therapeutics developed by Basler and Plemper and used as combination therapy for treating COVID-19.
For long-term success against COVID-19, vaccines are critical for blocking new viral infections. Two researchers in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences are working to create vaccines to protect against SARS-CoV-2:
Dr. JoAnn Tufariello, an infectious diseases physician scientist in the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis, will develop a vaccine with the goal of inducing rapid immunity against SARS-CoV-2, a critical need. This work builds upon a previously developed vaccine platform that proved to induce rapid protection against Ebola virus.
Limited viral strains have been reported to be responsible for COVID-19 diseases, but it’s unclear whether new strains will occur. A universal vaccine is needed to protect against all strains of the virus.
Baozhong Wang, associate professor, will develop a universal vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 using an innovative strategy he has created for universal flu vaccines. Wang has already developed a powerful research strategy for an effective, universal influenza vaccine with double-layered protein nanoparticles. He will use this layered nanoparticle vaccine platform to develop a universal vaccine for SARS-CoV-2.
It’s unclear why some people are more susceptible to COVID-19 than others.
Andrew Gewirtz, a Distinguished University Professor, plans to investigate the observation that gastrointestinal symptoms are an early predictor of severe, life-threatening disease in response to COVID-19 infection. He will study if such intestinal symptoms of COVID-19 infection are influenced by the gut microbiome, which is the collection of microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. Gewirtz will analyze the microbiome in fecal samples from suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients, including those with severe, mild or long-lasting disease. This will allow him to determine the role of gut microbiota in mediating susceptibility and the severity of disease and predicting the clinical outcomes of disease.
Associate Director of Communications
Institute for Biomedical Sciences
Georgia State University