The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine.

Here are three research projects currently ongoing at UH.

UH pharmacy professors take it back to basics

UH College of Pharmacy professors Gomika Udugamasooriya (left) and Bin Guo are studying how the virus enters the human body. Photo via uh.edu

When thinking about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, two UH pharmacy professors are looking at how the virus enters the body. Then, this information can help develop protection of that entry point.

"The human entry of coronaviruses depends on first binding of the viral spike proteins to human cellular receptors that basically offer a cellular doorknob," says Gomika Udugamasooriya, associate professor of pharmacological and pharmaceutical sciences, in a press release. "The virus latches onto the specific human cellular receptor, ACE2, and sneaks inside to replicate itself within the cell to spread throughout the body."

Now, the goal of new drugs and vaccines is to protect that ACE2. Udugamasooriya is working with Bin Guo, associate professor of pharmaceutics, on this research, which is in the initial screening levels and identified drug-lead validations. They are working to apply their unique cell-screening technology to identify specific synthetic chemical drug leads called peptoids that can bind to ACE2 receptor, according to the release.

"Peptoids are easier to make, compatible with biological systems and economical to produce," says Udugamasooriya.

Duo aims to create inhalation vaccine for COVID-19

Navin Varadarajan, UH engineering professor (left), and pharmaceutics professor Xinli Liu, pharmaceutics professor, are collaborating on development and testing of a COVID-19 inhalation vaccine. Photo via uh.edu

If the disease itself is airborne, can't the vaccine be too? That's what M.D. Anderson Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Navin Varadarajan looking into.

"For airborne pathogens, the nasal mucosa is the first point of defense that needs to be breached," says Varadarajan in a news release. "Mucosal immunity and vaccines are fundamentally important for a wide range of pathogens including influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the current SARS-CoV-2."

Varadarajan is focusing on the spike protein to protect at virus entry. These proteins are known for building strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and absence of infectious particles. He is working with Xinli Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutics.

"As with any vaccine, a variety of factors determine their efficacy including the antigen used for electing a response, the adjuvants and immunomodulators, the efficient delivery of the antigen to appropriate target cells, and the route of vaccination," Varadarajan says.

The man with three different vaccine options

UH Professor Shaun Zhang is in the process of developing three COVID-19 vaccine candidates for injection. Photo via uh.edu

Shaun Zhang, director for the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, usually works on developing treatment or vaccines for cancer and viral infection. Now, he's switched gears to work on three different vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

"The data collected from our studies show that our vaccine candidates can generate neutralizing antibodies, which can protect cells from infection by SARS-CoV-2 when tested in vitro," says Zhang in a press release. "We are now working on further improvement for the vaccine design."

Zhang's approach is neutralizing antibody production, and he's tapped into using "subunit vaccine containing either the entire spike protein or the receptor binding portion, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and delivered either by DNA formulation or by a herpes simplex virus-based vector," according to the release. Low cost and simplicity are two priorities for Zhang's work.

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Houston blockchain startup to collaborate to increase supply chain transparency

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More than two-thirds of the country's consumers have been reported saying that a business's social reputation will influence their buying decisions. A Houston blockchain startup has teamed up with another company to increase transparency.

Topl and Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, have entered into a partnership aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency.

According to Topl CEO, Kim Raath, the FDA announced new requirements in September, and the new rule requires full traceability in several agri-food products.

"This new rule will force many agri-food brands to take a deep look across their supply chains and find a way to track and trace their products," says Raath in a press release. "Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for these companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates. Further, our joint solution allows users to visualize their supply chain data, monitor suppliers, and easily report the progress of ESG initiatives to all stakeholders."

Kim Raath is the CEO of Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Together with Topl's purpose-built blockchain technology and TrackX's core enterprise asset management and supply chain optimization capabilities, companies can securely share verified event data to lower costs and increase transparency.

"Our clients have a unique opportunity to turn supply chain optimization into a competitive advantage," says Tim Harvie, TrackX CEO, in the release. "TrackX already automates supply chain execution and analytics for many leading brands and retailers.

"Tight integration with Topl's blockchain will now provide the 'proof' to all supply chain stakeholders that certain events have occurred," he continues. "In partnership with Topl, our enterprise customers will have the tracing, tracking, visibility and accountability they need to meet their digital supply chain and ESG initiatives."

Houston energy expert on how big data yields more reliable results

Guest column

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of need tells us that at our core, humans crave safety and sustenance. When you turn on the light each morning while getting ready for work, or when you check your bank account and see your paycheck arrived on schedule, we expect every aspect of our daily lives to work.

In today's world, we often take these things for granted, until reliability is threatened. Our dependency is revealed in the frenzy over a potential toilet paper shortage and in the panic buying of gasoline in a hurricane. When things in society are consistent, economies thrive. However, when you introduce fear and uncertainty, things begin to spiral. It is in these times that the decisions we make can have the biggest impact on the world around us.

The link between impactful decisions and reliability has brought our society to a pivotal moment in history. We have created a society so reliable and developed that even during the coronavirus lockdown, the basic needs of Americans could be met with only 25 percent of our workforce actively working. By increasing productivity using machines and systems, we have been able to improve our overall quality of life, but not without a price. As a result of such high improvement, we as a society have come to not only expect, but demand, reliability at all times.

When dependability waivers and anxiety rises, those in key decision-making positions are faced with unprecedented situations. Due to distress and a lack of understanding of certain situations, those in decision making positions are often times forced to make decisions based on rapid response and emotion. Because of this, consistency and reliability suffer.

A prime example of an emotional response is the coronavirus shutdown that occurred earlier this year. As a response to the growing fear and panic over the virus, major portions of our economy were shut down; schools were closed; and citizens were confined to their homes.

What followed was the bankruptcy of thousands of businesses, an unprecedented wave of fear throughout society and a disruption to the consistency of our daily lives. We have yet to know what lasting impacts this decision will have on our future economy or livelihood, but we now understand that rapid decision making is often met with long-term consequences.

While there will continue to be disagreements on all sides regarding the handling of the shutdown, what is undisputable is that we as a society have gained an opportunity to learn. We now have the unique advantage of using data in ways that has never been used before in order to make consistently better decisions, allowing us the opportunity to perform at levels we have never thought possible.

Whether it be data advancements in sports (think Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics), or the progression of technology (continuous iPhone updates), we are able to study the improvements of data on society in order to make more reliable decisions. With more powerful data analytics and innovations in data sciences, we are able to positively impact the most vital components of our society in order to make decisions that will drive evolution and reliability.

As the world continues to progress, the decisions we are forced to make have become more complex. With each complicated decision comes the potential for lasting positive or negative impact on society. In shifting from emotional, rapid reactions towards more data and quantitative focused methods, we have the unique and unprecedented opportunity to make our world a more reliable, stable and creative place.

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Ryan Sitton is the founder of Pinnacle and the author of "Crucial Decisions."

Rice scientist tapped by NASA for Mars mission

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A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."