The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has been awarded a $1.9 million contract to help develop a treatment for COVID-19 in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the institute announced in an official statement Thursday afternoon.

Using DOD supercomputers and SwRI software, the institute has been screening millions of drug compounds to search for and test possible treatment options for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine awarded SwRI the $1.9 million, one-year contract.

“This grant will enable SwRI to collaborate to develop safe antiviral drug therapy treatment options for COVID in record time,” Joe McDonough, director of SwRI’s pharmaceutical and bioengineering department, said in the statement.

SwRI is using the DOD’s High Performance Computing Modernization Program in conjunction with SwRI’s 3D drug screening software Rhodium to screen potential drug compounds. As a drug development tool, Rhodium helps scientists rapidly predict how protein structures in infectious diseases will bind with drug compounds to find candidates for developing a cure or treatment.

Using supercomputers speeds up the evaluation process – from 250,000 compounds a day to more than 40 million compounds a week, said Jonathan Bohmann, an SwRI principal scientist leading COVID-19 drug screening work. 

“Rhodium is helping us quickly identify highly probable compounds from databases with existing drug candidates to narrow down our focus,” Bohmann said. “As we identify potential candidates, we have moved them on to testing.”

Using the screening tool also helps save money, Bohman told the Rivard Report Friday. Rather than waste effort, time, and money testing every possible viable compound, scientists can test only the best candidates based on the computers’ projections, he said.

Once Rhodium identifies viable compounds and they’ve passed toxicity testing, they move to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute for further testing, including in tissue cultures and live animal models. 

SwRI began looking for a treatment to stop COVID-19 as soon as the virus’ protein was published in February, McDonough said in the statement. 

“Working with existing collaborators … SwRI scientists identified 60 compounds from a library of more than 6 million compounds,” he said. “These are already being tested at [U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases] and Texas Biomed. SwRI continues to fund the development of a treatment internally along with collaborators.”

Texas Biomed CEO and President Dr. Larry Schlesinger said he is excited about this grant and is proud of Texas Biomed’s partnership with SwRI in striving for a COVID-19 cure. 

The collaboration between SwRI and Texas Biomed, as well as the DOD, is a testament to the great science being done in San Antonio, Schlesinger added.

Texas Biomed is expected to give an update on its COVID-19 animal model studies research this week, he said.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.