Texas Research Community Works Together to Combat COVID-19

Selda Gunsel Profile

Researchers in Texas have answered the world’s call and stepped up to partner with the greater research community to help combat the spread of the COVID-19.

From reworking a vaccine meant to combat SARS nearly 20 years ago, to collaborating with other labs in Texas and around the world, to trying to secure new answers on how COVID-19 spreads and how communities should react, our state’s scientific leaders are working around the clock to find answers and mitigate harm.

“During this time of global pandemic, TAMEST is thankful to the greater research community for their work confronting the COVID-19 virus and communicating evidence-based scientific information to the public,” said TAMEST Board President Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH, UT Health San Antonio (NAM), and TAMEST Board Vice President David E. Daniel, Ph.D., The University of Texas at Dallas (NAE), in a joint statement.

“As our members and institutions mobilize to stop the spread of COVID-19 and work to discover effective treatments and vaccines, we are honored to support their service on the front lines fighting this infectious disease. This important work will help save lives and protect our way of life during this and future threats.”

TAMEST is proud of the work our academic and industry partners in Texas are doing to help curb the spread of COVID-19:

Baylor College of Medicine 

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine are working to combat the coronavirus by revitalizing past research. TAMEST Member Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told NBC News that his team created a vaccine after the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s that could work against COVID-19.

According to Hotez, he hopes their vaccine could cross-protect against both diseases because COVID-19 and SARS are similar. While he has applied for proposals to move their vaccines into clinical testing, they are still waiting for federal funding to move forward.

“It’s tragic that we won’t have a vaccine ready for this epidemic,” Hotez said while testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in March. “Practically speaking, we’ll be fighting these outbreaks with one hand tied behind our backs.”

According to KXAN, Hotez said federal funding will speed things up for groups like his, but the reason there’s no ‘quick fix’ is for people’s safety. Some testing has revealed that certain respiratory virus vaccines can, unfortunately, make symptoms worse.

While simultaneous working to find a cure, Hotez is also dedicated to informing the public. He has given hundreds of interviews in the last month in an effort to spread accurate information about the virus and encourage citizens to do their due diligence to prevent its spread.

Interviews range from PBS News, Texas Monthly, the Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, USA Today and everything in between.

Southwest Research Institute 

San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has teamed up with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and others for screening and drug development. SwRI is using a virtual screening tool to identify drugs that may be used to treat patients who contract COVID-19. The screening tool called Rhodium recently evaluated the effectiveness of two million drugs by analyzing how protein structures in the virus might bind with drug compounds.

SwRI President Adam Hamilton told San Antonio press in February that the tool has helped researchers identify 10 drugs that could potentially be effective in slowing or preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We’re working as fast as we can now internally—[and] also with some of our San Antonio partners—to see if we can actually demonstrate that these drugs are effective when used to prevent or help minimize the impact of coronavirus on people,” Hamilton said.

Texas A&M Health Science Center 

According to Texas A&M Health Science Center, federal officials in Washington, D.C. and state leaders in Austin have sought out the pandemic experts at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs offers policy guidance on prevention and response.

They are fighting “fear with fact,” according to a statement and are offering “the calming context that comes from decades of study into pandemic and coronaviruses.”

The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory 

In Galveston, Director of The University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory James Le Duc, M.D., told Nexstar media that they currently have three potential vaccines in development.

“We’ve provided it to our hospital, [and] the hospital is now validating it,” Le Duc told lawmakers of the Texas House Public Health Committee in March.

Le Duc said he is looking at research produced from the SARS epidemic and is working with a goal to create a pan-coronavirus vaccine. This vaccine would protect the public from not just one virus but could work broadly and “perhaps even protect people from coronaviruses that haven’t even emerged into the population yet.”

The University of Texas at Austin 

At The University of Texas at Austin, Jason McLellan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences in the College of Natural Sciences, has been studying coronaviruses since the SARS epidemic in 2002.

As soon as reports of COVID-19 emerged, McLellan’s team began mapping a “spike protein,” which is the part of the virus that attaches itself to human cells, according to KXAN.

“We’ve been disseminating these structures [maps of ‘spike protein’] to people all over the world,” he said. “The company Moderna has already shipped an initial lot of their vaccine encoding for our stabilized spike protein to our collaborators at the NIH.”

Moderna began its first clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States in mid-March. A challenge for researchers is that the typical timeline for vaccine development is 12 to 18 months, making it difficult to develop a vaccine in time to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW)

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) in Dallas are partnering with international collaborators to find protein that potentially inhibits coronavirus. Associate Professor of Microbiology at UTSW John Schoggins, Ph.D., explained in a statement that his research reveals that the LY6E protein impairs the coronavirus’ ability to initiate infection, which could lead to treatments for the disease.

“Remarkably, this potent inhibitory effect carried over to all the coronaviruses we tested, including those responsible for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) outbreak in 2003, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in 2012, and the recently emerged causative agent of COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2,” he said

University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC)

A professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) in Fort Worth is collaborating with an international team to test whether stem cells can combat COVID-19 pneumonia. UNT HSC Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience Kunlin Jin, Ph.D. is leading the team from North Texas and says early signs are promising.

“Our study showed that intravenous infusion of clinical-grade human mesenchymal stem cells is a safe and efficient approach for treating patients with COVID-19 pneumonia, including in elderly patients displaying severe pneumonia,” Jin told Dallas Innovates.

Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI)

In San Antonio, Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TRBI) is currently working on five separate research projects to help develop safe vaccines and antiviral medication to combat COVID-19. According to The Rivard Report, TBRI is looking at the virus to determine what characteristics are needed for the virus to replicate in a human and for it to actually cause disease. From diagnostics to in vitro testing and animal studies, to eventual human clinical trials, TBRI will need to still do more than a dozen rounds of testing on the virus before any vaccine will reach the public.

“Our team is rallying to meet the needs of our scientific community in developing animal models, studying the virus and examining potential diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to combat the new coronavirus,” TBRI said in a statement. “Scientists here have begun their own research, and we are working with collaborators worldwide to execute leading research into COVID-19.”

The Center for Disease Controls (CDC) website has up-to-date information on COVID-19 and how to protect yourself and your community.