As researchers worldwide race to find treatments and a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, scientists in San Antonio are experimenting in their own labs with ways to combat the virus that causes COVID-19.
Researchers at large institutions such as Texas BioMed and UT Health San Antonio have devoted more resources to studying the virus and possible treatments, while small, private-sector companies and even individual physicians are looking at ways to adapt previous discoveries to treating or protecting people against the novel coronavirus.
A team of experts
“Of the 250 labs at the Health Science Center, almost one-fifth are doing some sort of work with COVID-19,” said Dr. Robert Hromas, dean of the Long School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs of UT Health San Antonio. “We want to fight this, not run away from it.”
Through the partnership, researchers at UT Health San Antonio are able to get virus samples and materials needed, and their research findings are shared openly with Texas Biomed as they both work independently in the race to help find a cure for the coronavirus.
About a month ago, clinicians at UT Health San Antonio pivoted from their current research focusing on malaria, lupus, cancer, and other illnesses to COVID-19, Hromas said. Half a million dollars have been routed toward the research to learn more about the novel disease, he added.
Hromas himself has been studying the genetic information, or RNA, of the virus. He and his colleagues hope to find a way of preventing the virus from being able to replicate, Hromas explained.
To replicate, a virus will hijack a host cell, which will usually try to fight back with natural defenses. The virus’ first task after getting into a cell is to protect itself, Hromas explained. It does this by eating up the RNA in the host cell, so that its own RNA is protected, he said.
“So if we can add that [host cell’s RNA] back, we might have a [treatment],” Hromas said.
One of the school’s more promising studies is being headed by Evelien Bunnik, assistant professor in the department of microbiology, immunity, and molecular genetics, Hromas said. She is working on vaccine development through studying the antibodies from people who have had the infection and recovered from it.
Studying antibodies can have two applications: working toward vaccine development and providing a treatment, Bunnik said. Studying antibodies can help researchers understand which part of the virus would be best to include in a vaccine to get the body to make the same type of antibodies.
By mapping out the virus and finding where on that map the antibodies bind to make the virus harmless, a more effective vaccine can be designed, Bunnik explained. An antibody is a natural defense mechanism that flags viruses or bacteria for the body to destroy.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, features spikes on its coating, which it uses to force its way into a cell, Bunnik said.
“You can sort of see it as a lock and a key,” Bunnik said. “The spike protein is the key that needs to bind to the lock on the host cell. If you can prevent the key from going into the lock, you can prevent infection. That is what a neutralizing antibody does.”
Bunnik isn’t alone in studying antibodies at UT Health San Antonio, where down the hall Dr. Paolo Casali and Daniel Chupp are studying the virus’ effect in “humanized mice.” Chupp, a fourth-year doctoral candidate, explained these mice have had their natural immune systems deleted and replaced with a full human immune system.
“H-mice are fantastic because they’re able to model human diseases better,” Chupp said.
Casali will be able to test the immune response of the mice to identify potential vaccines, he said. Casali will take the virus spikes and introduce them to the mice, which will then hopefully make human antibodies that can be further used to find a potential treatment, Chupp said.
“We’re incredibly excited to have this first group of humanized mice to learn more about many diseases, especially COVID-19,” Chupp said.
In the early 2000s, San Antonio-based biomedicine company Incell Corp. began creating a “redivax” platform, a so-called plug-and-play vaccine, that could be produced more quickly because the fundamental basics of the vaccine don’t change. The genes of a new virus can be added to make the vaccine specific to a particular disease, said Dr. Mary Pat Moyer, founder, CEO, and chief science officer of Incell.
Like a house, the only thing that needs to be added before move-in are the decorations, she said, comparing adding the genes of the new virus to doing finishing touches. Competing researchers, meanwhile, are still working to build the house, Moyer added.
Moyer said she and her co-workers received plasmids – tiny bits of genetic information – from the SARS-CoV-2 virus a few weeks ago. All Incell needs to do is “plug in” these bits of genetic information into Incell’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine base, she said. The redivax would then need final approval from the FDA before clinical trials could start, she added.
Meanwhile, San Antonio infectious disease specialist Dr. Robert Zajac believes a tweaked version of a treatment he developed in the 1980s could be the answer to decreasing the number of COVID-19-related deaths.
Zajac has written up a proposal of this treatment – dubbed an “anti-inflammatory mitochondrial cocktail bundle,” or the AIM bundle for short – that he plans to present to a major hospital system in San Antonio within the next month.
Zajac said the cocktail bundle is a mix of vitamins, medications, steroids, and immunoglobulins – a type of antibody – that is given to a patient intravenously in an attempt to help bolster a weakened immune system. The treatment works by calming the patient’s overreacting immune response, Zajac said. He said he saw success in versions of this treatment when he and critical care specialist Dr. David Marks used it in 2009 and 2013.
The downside of the AIM bundle is its cost – between $2,000 and $2,500, he said.