Researchers from the San Antonio-based Texas Biomedical Research Institute have commenced working on several different projects related to the novel coronavirus from growing and identifying the virus’ genetic makeup to testing a live genetically modified vaccine and antiviral medications on primates. The race is one around the world to find a safe vaccine and antiviral medication to fight CONVID-19—now officially declared a pandemic. They are tapping into a combination of NIH funding and funds out of its $50 million operational budget—it is also in search of additional funds to help accelerate the quest for a vaccine.
The Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed/the Institute), based in San Antonio, Texas, is an independent, non-profit biomedical research institution, specializing in genetics and in virology and immunology. Texas Biomed is funded by government and corporate grants and contracts, as well as public donations.
The institute was formed in 1941 by Texas entrepreneur and businessman Tom Slick, as the Foundation of Applied Research. With an initial focus on research and development in agriculture, natural sciences and medicine it became the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education by 1952. By 1982, it was renamed the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) and by 2011 switched to the current name. It operates on a $50 million budget.
Employing over 60 doctoral level biomedical scientists (including 18 principal investigators) and 360+ staff members, the team focuses on 1) genetics and 2) virology and immunology. The Southwest National Primate Research Centers, part of Texas Biomed, is an international resource that offers specialized facilities and expertise in research with nonhuman primates to investigators worldwide. It maintains 2,500 nonhuman primates.
The facility includes the only privately owned Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory in the United States, developing bioterrorism defenses and novel strategies against incurable infectious diseases. They work with the AT&T Genomics Computing Center, which is purportedly “the world’s largest computer cluster devoted to statistical genetic analysis in the support of investigators’ quest for genes that influence susceptibility to diseases at record speed.
Some Labs are Over Promising?
Although time is of the essence, in the best case the development of a successful treatment is about a year away. Luis Martinez-Sobrido, a researcher there focusing on the creation of a Live Attenuated Vaccine (LAV) reports that other labs’ claims they can put a vaccine candidate into clinical trials within six-to-twelve months is overly aggressive and probably in the best case we are a year away from clinical trials. Safety is of paramount concern of course. The Texas group is collaborating with at least 15 other labs worldwide. For example, weekly video conferences are held with different institutes to share methods and approaches for potentially stopping the deadly virus.
Review of Older Strains
The team at Texas Biomed are studying older strains of the coronavirus from 2003 which established a groundwork for the novel coronavirus, reported Ricardo Carrion, Jr. program co-lead, disease intervention and prevention for the institute’s Southwest National Primate Research Center.
Studying Underlying Virus
The team received an isolate of the SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19, from a Washington State case This past weekend they received approval to commence reported the Rivard Report. They will “amplify it” or develop the virus so that they can better characterize and understand its elements. As they grow stock, this will be used for all the institute’s COVID-19 research projects. They are handling the virus in the center’s new 7,500 square-foot Biosafety Level Three Laboratory. Note that Biosafety Level Four represents the highest biosafety level laboratory and reserved for extreme contagions (e.g. Ebola), reports the Rivard Report. The Texas Biomedical Research Institute also equips their scientists including special suits with respirators, ventilated biosafety cabinets, etc.
Development of in Vitro Models
Once they develop virus stock, the Texas team will move on to building in vitro models; that is real tissue infected with the virus in a quest to investigate the virus’s makeup. At this stage, the team can begin its testing of how the virus reacts to various antiviral medication. Animal research at the Southwest Research Institute will help the cause.
Potential Candidates to Fight the Virus
Last month, the Rivard Report reported on a list of drugs that the Southwest Research Institute identified could potentially slow or prevent the spread of COVID-19. By employing a screening tool called Rhodium, they were able to evaluate the possible effectivity of 2 million drugs by analyzing how the virus’ protein structures might bind with the targeted drug compounds. The team distilled the big list down to about 100 possible drug candidates. Moreover, in parallel, genome experimentation helps the team assess ways to modify the live virus to potentially be safe for a Live Attenuated Vaccine.
To Animal Studies
Once the team can develop and grow in vitro testing, next they will move to animal models with a focus on how the virus impacts baboons—Texas Biomed, according to Carrion, is the only research center (known) experimenting on baboons. For example, other labs will test on other primates or animals. Apparently, no two labs are doing the exact same thing, hence the intensive collaboration and the weekly video calls.
To Clinical Trials
Once the LAVs and medications are thoroughly tested in animal models then researchers can submit the appropriate paperwork to conduct clinical trials, which, of course, can go on for three phases and years. If the clinical trials are successful, the organization must submit the paperwork to manufacture the vaccine, which of course can take quite a while even with expedited measures.
Funding is not straightforward, as Texas Biomed must access different funding sources for different activities. For example: for early research, they often tap into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) while for later-stage research, they turn to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or other sources.
Texas Biomed did receive a $60,000 grant from the NIH for the baboon model research as well as an undisclosed amount for characterizing the virus, reported Carrion to the Rivard Report. Its other three COVID-19 projects are funded out of its annual $50 million budget. The nonprofit is still in search of other means to fund these important projects.
Ricardo Carrion, Jr., Program Co-lead, Disease Intervention and Prevention for the institute’s Southwest National Primate Research Center
Call to Action: The Texas Biomedical Research Institute seeks additional support for the quest to accelerate a cure to COVID-19.