Texas Research Community Works Together to Combat COVID-19 (Winter 2020 Update)
Nine months since the first known case of COVID-19 in Texas, the first round of vaccines is being distributed across the state this week. Texas researchers have been instrumental in rapidly developing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, creating models to track its spread and more. Read our compilation of how TAMEST member institutions and industry partners across the state are continuing the fight against COVID-19:
Baylor College of Medicine
Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine have made a promising breakthrough in the search for a vaccine. TAMEST Member Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, began developing a new vaccine with his team shortly after Chinese scientists released the genetic sequence for the novel coronavirus earlier this year. It was modeled after a similar vaccine his lab had created for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Dr. Hotez’s team announced in November that their vaccine is now undergoing human trials in India.
“This vaccine represents an urgent biotechnology innovation for ensuring health equity and combating the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Hotez in a statement. If the trial is successful, the inexpensive TCH vaccine will be manufactured by India’s Biological E. Limited and distributed across the developing world.
In addition to this encouraging development, another Baylor vaccine candidate is in Phase 3 trials, led by Hana M. El Sahly, M.D., Principal Investigator of the NIAID-funded Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium site at Baylor. An interim review of the trial suggests that Moderna’s investigational vaccine mRNA-1273 is safe and effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in adults.
“The independent data and safety monitoring board reported that the candidate was safe and well-tolerated and noted a vaccine efficacy rate of 94.5%. The findings are statistically significant, meaning they are likely not due to chance,” stated the National Institutes of Health.
Before the first known case of COVID-19 arrived in the United States, physician-scientists at Houston Methodist began to test for and sequence the virus on a large scale. By July 7, researchers sequenced the genome of more than 5,000 strains of COVID-19.
In a study published by the journal mBio, researchers at Houston Methodist shared that the sequencing identified a particular mutation, called Gly614, that accounted for relatively all COVID-19 infections within the Houston metropolitan area during the second wave of infections this summer. The Gly614 mutation substitutes one amino acid for another at a particular position in the virus’s spike protein. According to the researchers, this substitution allows the virus to invade cells more easily.
With news of the Moderna vaccine candidate hovering around 95% efficacy, a recent news article showed that Houston Methodist anticipates the vaccine arrival before the end of the year and its distribution soon after.
“I think it’s quite possible that we will see high-risk populations [receive a vaccine] in [the] January – March timeframe and maybe by April, you know, very broad populations [will have access to a] vaccine and that’s a cause for real hope and optimism,” said Marc Boom, M.D., President and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital and speaker at the recent TAMEST Conversation on COVID-19: Survival and Recovery.
Rice University and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
In a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, TAMEST Member Lydia E. Kavraki, Ph.D. (NAM), Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science at Rice University, and a team of researchers from both Rice and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center revealed models at atomic resolution that detail the binding and unbinding mechanisms that underlie a key component of the immune system.
They found that “position 4” of the peptide drawn from a SARS-CoV virus turned out to have a significant influence on how it stably binds with a receptor central to the immune system’s ability to attack diseased cells.
While Dr. Kavraki and her collaborators have been hard at work identifying the possible weaknesses of the novel coronavirus, elsewhere at Rice, the bioengineering department is evaluating a new saliva-based COVID-19 test.
The lab of TAMEST Member Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D. (NAE, NAS), Malcolm Gillis University Professor at Rice, developed a test that purports to be both faster and easier than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing using an isothermal amplification method called LAMP to detect viral DNA.
“When our test is compared to PCR using nasopharyngeal samples, results agree more than 90 percent of the time,” said Dr. Richards-Kortum in a recent article. “Other studies have shown that the amount of virus in saliva is comparable to that in nasopharyngeal samples so we are hopeful that the test will perform well with this type of sample.”
Texas A&M University
The Texas A&M University System is collaborating with the U.S. Air Force and Worlds Inc. to evaluate the “Worlds Protect” prototype kiosk, which uses artificial intelligence and a person’s breath to rapidly test for COVID-19. Initial results from their test locations across Texas reveal the machine has an accuracy similar to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
“There’s a lot of immediacy in the impact,” said 2020 TAMEST Protégé David Staack, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M, in a recent news article. “We can really go and turn something around and do testing with a few people today over in the rec center for example, or plan testing to help the artificial intelligence learn how to analyze breaths.”
Texas A&M researchers also analyzed New York City neighborhoods to identify significant predictors of the spread of the virus. The ecological study, published in BMC Medicine, found a significant association between confirmed COVID-19 cases and dependent children, population density, median household income and race.
“If you go back and look at the Spanish flu, there were three waves that hit the U.S., of which the second wave was the worst,” said Rich Whittle, Texas A&M Aerospace Engineering Doctoral Student, in a Texas A&M Today article. “So having an earlier understanding of the socioeconomic risk factors allows policymakers to better target where they want to focus their efforts.”
Texas Tech University
In the Texas Panhandle, Texas Tech University researchers are working on a portable COVID-19 test that only requires your smartphone and a few drops of saliva. Researchers are also busy creating a vaccine that not only protects against SARS-CoV-2 but six different strains of coronaviruses as well.
2020 TAMEST Protégé Gerardine Botte, Ph.D., Professor and Whitacre Department Chair in the Whitacre College of Engineering, led a team of researchers to create a COVID-19 test that is as accurate as PCR tests and faster than present rapid tests. According to Texas Tech, the Rapid COVID and HIV Detection Sensor is an electrochemical microbial sensor that connects to your smartphone, requires a drop of saliva and delivers results in a matter of seconds as opposed to half an hour.
Also a 2020 TAMEST Protégé, researcher Harvinder Gill, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Whitacre Endowed Chair of Science and Engineering, is developing a vaccine that binds to six different strains of coronaviruses, including the strain responsible for COVID-19.
“In the past, there have been other coronaviruses that have affected or have caused infection in humans, so we are hoping it works against those strains and perhaps in [the] future against other strains that might emerge,” said Dr. Gill in a Texas Tech interview.
The University of Texas at Arlington
At The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), the North Texas Genome Center Lab quickly shifted gears at the start of the pandemic to become the center for testing at the North Texas campus in a matter of three months.
According to D Magazine, the genome center was originally launched as a collaboration between universities and corporations to sequence genomes for biomedical research. Once the pandemic hit, a pop-up COVID-19 rapid testing unit was developed and all the equipment needed to analyze 500 samples per day at full capacity was acquired.
“We had something special [at UTA],” said TAMEST Member Florence Haseltine, M.D. (NAM), Medical Director of the North Texas Genome Center Lab, in a recent article. “We had an administration who was absolutely focused on getting this done. They trusted us.”
The lab has conducted more than 2,500 COVID-19 tests by using laser scans to identify the signature RNA COVID-19 marker. Since August, there have been 260 confirmed COVID-19 cases on the UTA campus. Among the 84 Texas universities reporting case counts, UTA is one of the only 10 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex with case numbers under 300.
The University of Texas at Austin
The McLellan Lab at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) has received notable recognition for their contributions to the success of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine candidates. Jason McLellan, Ph.D., Associate Professor in Molecular Biosciences, helped craft the first 3D atomic scale of the spike protein, part of the coronavirus that attaches to and infects human cells.
This model allowed the lab to identify and manipulate the most dangerous and vulnerable form of the protein before it infected other cells with SAR-CoV-2. According to the Texas Tribune, at least four of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates and antibody therapies are using this antigen developed by the McLellan Lab.
In September, the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium launched a new online dashboard to track the spread of the virus in 22 Trauma Service Areas (TSAs) identified by the Texas Department of State Health Services. The dashboard combines hospitalization data with anonymous cellphone mobility data to predict how the pandemic is progressing in each TSA and its impact on local health care resources.
“People across the state can use this data to track the risks in their own community and decide when it may be time to enact or relax control measures,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, Ph.D., Professor of Integrative Biology and Director of the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, in a UT News article. Dr. Meyers also presented updates on the progression of the virus in Austin at a May and July session of TAMEST’s Forward Texas Digital Series.
In addition to creating tools to track community spread, TAMEST Member S. Claiborne Johnston, M.D. (NAM), Dean of Dell Medical School and Vice President for Medical Affairs at UT Austin, and the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium analyzed Austin hospitalization data and discovered key findings related to the construction industry.
Published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open, the consortium’s study “Estimated Association of Construction Work With Risks of COVID-19 Infection and Hospitalization in Texas” found that construction workers were five times more likely than other workers to be hospitalized with COVID-19 in Austin.
The University of Texas at Dallas
Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas) examined how manufacturers are pivoting in response to major disruptions brought on by the pandemic. Published in IEEE Engineering Management Review, a recent study found that the initial pandemic response was both reactive and disorganized due to many manufacturing firms not including the management of an infectious-disease outbreak in their company crisis communications plans.
In a recently published study, a UT Dallas researcher investigated the allocation process and spatial distribution of negative-pressure isolation rooms (NPIRs) in South Korea during past outbreaks. The findings concluded that the quantity of NPIRs can indicate a healthcare system’s preparedness for future outbreaks.
“The maps in our study clearly show that depending on the type of infectious disease in the next epidemic, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be some hot spots in need of NPIRs…,” said the study’s co-author Dohyeong Kim, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Public Policy, Political Economy and of Geospatial Information Sciences, in a UTD Today article. “These past few weeks, we’ve seen news reports of intensive care units being full or almost full, and hospitals in some areas reaching capacity. If COVID-19 patients, either confirmed or suspected, are treated in a regular room that is not equipped with negative pressure, and they’re spreading the disease, it creates a bigger problem.”
The University of Texas at San Antonio, UT Health San Antonio and Southwest Research Institute
In October, the San Antonio Medical Foundation Board of Trustees approved six collaborative grants for biomedical research teams totaling more than $1 million. One of these research teams, involving The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), UT Health San Antonio and Southwest Research Institute, will receive almost $200,000 for COVID-19 related work.
The grant aims to fund collaborative studies that combine virology, high-throughput screening, medicinal chemistry and in-silico drug design expertise. According to a UTSA news release, the team’s research targets interactions between viral proteins and host cell proteins.
“I’ve built some very strong collaborations and partnerships — not only on campus but with our colleagues at UT Health and Southwest Research Institute,” said Doug Frantz, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry at UTSA, in a San Antonio Business Journal interview. “I’ve known these individuals for 10-plus years, and we’ve worked on multiple therapeutics in the past. That triad of expertise made a lot of sense with this particular approach to Covid-19.”
The University of Texas Medical Branch
In Galveston, findings from a recent study, published in Cell Reports, will enable scientists to create engineered viruses without proteins that suppress host immune response.
“Our study has provided knowledge for new approaches for live-attenuated vaccine development, ” said Hongjie Xia, Ph.D., a research scientist at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and senior co-author of the study, in a UTMB news release. “For example, we can now engineer mutant viruses that cannot suppress host immune response. Such mutant viruses could be used to prime our immune system as vaccine candidates. Since these mutant viruses could not fight against [the] immune system, they would be rapidly eliminated by our immune response without causing disease.”
In late October, a multidisciplinary team of researchers found that a dominant mutation D614G of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein enhances viral replication in the upper respiratory airway, which may contribute to the increased transmission of COVID-19. The study was published in the journal Nature. The results of this study have mitigated the concern that vaccines built on the wild-type spike sequence might have weakened efficacy due to the D614G mutation.
University of Houston
At the beginning of the pandemic, University of Houston Physics Professor Seamus Curran, Ph.D. repurposed his nanotechnology coating substance to stop the spread of COVID-19 on personal protective equipment. According to Innovation Map, Dr. Curran is once again utilizing his coating substance, this time applied to air filters.
In an ABC13 interview, Dr. Curran said, “the virus would essentially be blocked as it tries to pass through an air filter treated with this special liquid, leaving the virus to decay and disappear on the air filter.”
Dr. Curran estimates this process to take 40 minutes.
UT Southwestern Medical Center
At UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW), researchers have focused on the manifestations and effects of COVID-19 in the human body. This research will help the medical community better understand the role that comorbidities play in the treatment plan and prognosis of a COVID-19 patient.
In an eLife article, UTSW scientists showed that conditions related to obesity, including inflammation and leaky gut, leave the lungs of obese patients more susceptible to COVID-19.
“When the virus comes into this system, the lungs are already at risk,” said 2008 TAMEST Protégé Philipp Scherer, Ph.D., Director of the Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research and Professor of Internal Medicine and Cell Biology, in a UTSW news release.
The researchers hypothesize that dexamethasone, a steroid undergoing clinical trials, could prove useful in obese patients battling COVID-19. This treatment reduces inflammation systemically, taking a broad approach to reduce this damaging state.
In a series of published studies, cardiologists at UTSW have found that Black and Hispanic individuals were more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white patients.
“The results highlight the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 among Black and Hispanic patients, and imply there are factors in the U.S. that existed prior to hospitalization that are driving these disparities in COVID hospitalization and death,” said James de Lemos, M.D., Professor of Internal Medicine and a Distinguished Chair in Cardiology, in a UTSW news release.
Research by Ann Marie Navar, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Population and Data Sciences, showed that older, nonwhite men with cardiovascular disease (CVD) or CVD risk factors in particular were more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Dr. Navar’s work featured a review of nearly 20,000 patients and revealed that CVD or CVD risk factors in COVID-19 patients dramatically increased the risk of in-hospital mortality.
TAMEST Industry Members and Partners
Located in San Antonio, Texas, the biopharmaceutical company INCELL, founded and led by TAMEST Member Mary Pat Moyer, Ph.D. (NAE), is developing two treatments to combat the SARs-CoV-2 virus: a non-ultra-cold storage vaccine and an at-home diagnostic kit. In development, INCELL’s vaccine is packaged for non-needle delivery, will require one-dose and is stored at a temperature no colder than refrigeration.
“It was clear in January and February that a pandemic was coming and that we needed to prepare to bring out our RediVax™ rapid response vaccine platforms of cells, viral vectors, non-needle delivery and testing capabilities to explore making a vaccine, and toward developing other COVID-19 products,” said Dr. Moyer in TAMEST’s December Member Profile.
Rochal Industries, a San Antonio biomedical research company co-founded and led by TAMEST Member Ann Beal Salamone (NAE), recently tested the efficacy of BIAKŌS™ antimicrobial skin and wound cleanser against the novel coronavirus. Licensed to Sanara MedTech, the cleanser resulted in a 99.96% reduction of SARS-CoV-2 within 30 seconds in the presence of BIAKŌS™.
In addition to this product, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Rochal Industries a Phase I SBIR grant to develop the science for a new product for the protection of skin tears, which kicked off in early June.
“We also have pending funding from the Navy for clinical trials utilizing the BIAKŌS technology,” said Mrs. Salamone, Chairman of the Board at Rochal, in a recent TAMEST Member Profile.
Texas Biomedical Research Institute
At the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, scientists are working to create targeted vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. In the lab, Texas Biomed has created a BAC plasmid that contains the entire genome for SARS-Cov-2. By working with this plasmid, scientists can alter the genome sequences and measure the characteristics it produces. The plasmid acts as a building block in the development of disease prevention measures like vaccines.
“Currently, we’re working with other labs to deliver the plasmid in order for them to move their research forward, as well as conduct fluorescent reporter virus studies to identify antivirals and neutralizing antibodies for the treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” said Cory Hallam, Ph.D., Vice President, Business Development and Strategic Alliances at Texas Biomed in a news release.
Thanks to a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Texas Biomed is also testing the efficacy of human monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) to identify MAbs that will stop the progression of COVID-19 in the human body. The grant will allow Texas Biomed to conduct one of the largest rodent projects the research institution has ever seen.
“Texas Biomed was one of the first research institutes to develop the rodent models to study Covid-19,” said Luis Martinez-Sobrido, Ph.D., Professor of Disease Intervention and Prevention at Texas Biomed, in an interview with the San Antonio Business Journal. “The data we were able to produce in such a short period in our rodent animal studies, along with our infrastructure, positioned us to conduct these tests.”
The large-scale study hopes to identify highly effective combinations of SARS-CoV-2 MAbs that offer protection against the disease’s progression.
TAMEST is proud to represent these Texas research universities as our member institutions and trusted partners. To see more of what our member institutions have done over the course of the pandemic, please see our COVID-19 research coverage from earlier this year: Spring 2020 Update and Summer 2020 Update. TAMEST also continues to highlight the Texas scientific response to COVID-19 through our Forward Texas Digital Series.