A COVID-19 research breakthrough out of a Texas university comes from unlikely source

have you heard the one about the llama?

COVID-19 antibody research coming out of the University of Texas stars an unlikely participant: A llama named Winter. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

In the race to find a treatment for the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have announced a potential breakthrough — thanks to a llama.

Scientists from Texas' flagship university who have been collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium identified an antibody treatment that could potentially neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19.

The researchers detail their work in the May 5 edition of Cell, a scientific journal.

"This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author of the paper, in a release. (FYI, SARS-CoV-2 is referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.)

Using a Belgian llama named Winter, scientists were able to identify two antibodies the animal produces when it comes into contact with a foreign body (such as the coronavirus). The first is similar to a human antibody and the second is much smaller, about one-quarter of the size of the other.

This is Winter. Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Researchers were able to link two copies of this special llama antibody to create a new antibody. This new antibody binds tightly to a key protein on the coronavirus germ that causes COVID-19 and could possible be nebulized and put into an inhaler.

"That makes them potentially really interesting as a drug for a respiratory pathogen because you're delivering it right to the site of infection," said Daniel Wrapp, a UT graduate student in McLellan's lab and co-first author of the paper.

Unlike vaccines, which can take up to two months to take effect, antibody treatment can be used in more vulnerable populations as a way to fight off the virus.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," McLellan said. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease."

From here, research turns to preclinical studies, using hamsters and primates for testing. If successful, they will move onto humans.

If you're wondering just how a group of researchers living in different parts of the globe were able to make this discovery seemingly overnight, that's because they've actually been working on it since 2016, when Winter was just 9 months old.

The experiment began as a way to develop vaccinations for two earlier versions of the coronavirus: SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Their years of research allowed the scientists to pivot in recent months to isolating the protein in COVID-19.

As for Winter, she's now 4 years old and still lives with about 130 llamas on a farm in Belgium, likely unaware of her contribution to potentially altering the course of COVID-19 forever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Coding camps continue to grow and expand in Houston. The most recent comes from the University of Texas. Getty Images

UT coding camp emerges in Houston as the city grows its tech and innovation ecosystem

Up to code

As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows, the need for tech talent grows too. It's why the University of Texas and workforce accelerator Trilogy Education decided to bring a series of coding boot camps designed to teach Houstonians the skills they need to excel in the fast-paced world of the tech economy to town.

"Too many working adults lack the skills to succeed in the digital economy," says Liliya Spinazzola, the senior director for professional education and strategic initiatives at the Texas Extended Campus of The University of Texas at Austin. "And that means that employers are lacking a talent pool."

The Houston Coding Boot Camp aims to change all that. The 24-week sessions teach web development and coding skills, allowing adults to take classes even as they're working. That kind of flexibility helps them increase their knowledge as they continue to build career paths.

Houston's seen a good amount of growth when it comes to new coding camps. Digital Crafts, for instance, grew from an inaugural class of eight students to 125 people in just two years. Women Who Code saw a need for female coders in Houston to have a network, and now the city has a newly launched chapter.

Student success
So far, 260 students have completed the programs, going on to work at companies such as JP Morgan, IBM, and Deloitte.

One of those is Rebecca Gemeinhardt, now a full stack developer at Shell. She graduated with her bachelor's in graphic arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2017, and found that she missed being in a classroom. When she started the boot camp, she was immediately drawn to the challenge the subject matter offered, as well as the flexible schedule.

"The boot camp was just as formidable as the curriculum promised but extremely fulfilling," she says. "Going into boot camp, I didn't tell anyone I was doing it — what if I struggled and couldn't get through it? I kept it a secret until I found the confidence to identify as a developer."

Once she completed the program, she was hired at Shell.

"My life had changed so much in just six months but definitely for the better," Gemeinhardt says. "By focusing on the ability to adopt new technologies, [the coding boot camp instructors] left us with the invaluable skill of being adaptable and fast-learning full stack developers. This has helped me immensely at my current position as we are always incorporating new languages to our architecture depending on individual project needs."

Filling the need
Spinazzola says the camps deliberately try to create environments that foster the level of problem solving and exploration Gemeinhardt describes. The program partners with employers to discover what skills are most needed, and tailors the curriculum to dovetail with them. She says the skills most in demand right now are coding, cyber security, IT project management, and digital marketing.

"We also look at job description data here in Texas to see what skills are listed," she says. "And while students are in the program, we have a robust network that engages with them upfront, talking to them about what jobs are out there. And we host career fairs where they can show off their portfolios and discuss their skills set with potential employers."

Spinazzola says that students come from all walks of life and employment backgrounds, and that 26 percent of the participants are women. With 25 students per boot camp session, the small classes make for deep instruction. UT offers between three and fours sessions in Houston each year. She says that she finds participants are looking to either break into the tech sector, learn new skills or re-train to be able to advance their careers. The average age of students is somewhere in the low-30s, she says.

"We had a student who owned a cooking school and wanted to start a new career," she says. "[Rebecca] trained as a graphic artist and wanted to be a developer. One student shut down his medical practice and says that he wanted to learn coding so that he could go work for a pharmaceutical company. To me, that's the beauty of this program. These skills are in demand, and our students are able to take what they already know and enhance their abilities to be able to take on new career paths."

The University of Texas System scooted up three spots from 2017. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

University of Texas ranks as one of the world's most innovative schools

Hook 'em

A new ranking from Reuters has placed the University of Texas System among the world's most innovative universities.

According to an October 11 release, the Reuters Top 100: The World's Most Innovative Universities "identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries." The UT System ranked No. 6 out of the 100 best in the world. The 2018 ranking is a jump up from its No. 9 spot in 2017.

In addition to the flagship University of Texas at Austin, the system is comprised of seven other public universities across the state as well as six health institutions. Reuters notes that because of how the UT System reports on innovation, it assessed the entire enterprise rather than individual universities.

As a whole, the UT System boasts an impressive number of accolades that helped it scoot up three spots. As Reuters notes, chief among these accolades is the National Science Foundation's $60 million grant to the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin to build a supercomputer and the system's $2.7 billion in annual research expenditures. (Not to mention numerous Nobel Laureates among both faculty and alumni.)

Overall, the U.S. dominated the list, claiming 46 out of the 100 spots. Rounding out the top 10 for 2018 is: No. 1, Stanford University; No. 2, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; No. 3, Harvard University; No. 4, University of Pennsylvania; No. 5, University of Washington; No. 7, Belgium's KU Leuven, No. 8, U.K.'s Imperial College London; No. 9, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and No. 10, Vanderbilt University.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston is poised to lead 5G growth in Texas, according to a new report

leading the stream

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

Houston lands on list of nation's top spots for millennials on the move

migration destination

The Bayou City is shining as an attractive destination for young people on the move.

According to the fifth-annual study from SmartAsset, millennials are fleeing cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and migrating to other areas in search of work and a better quality of life, with Houston landing as the No. 18 spot for young professionals age 25 to 39.

In order to compile the list, SmartAsset dug into U.S. Census Bureau data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 180 specific cities. According to the findings, 18,035 millennials moved in to Houston in 2019, while 15,838 moved out. That makes a net migration of 2,197, per the study.

When it comes to migrating millennials, the Lone Star State is tops, landing at No. 1 for states where millennials are moving, with more than 187,000 young people heading to Texas in the pre-pandemic year. Though some 154,000 millennials left Texas during the same time period, this results in a net gain of more than 33,000 millennial residents, the biggest net gain for the group in the country, giving Texas the lead in millennial migration for the second year in a row.

In news that is hardly shocking, Austin landing as the No. 4 hot spot overall.

While Austin ranks as the top Texas city where millennials are moving, one other Texas spot landed in the top 10, the Dallas suburb of Frisco (No. 6), with a net migration of 3,516 out-of-state millennials in 2019.

Dallas just missed the top 10, landing at No. 11 on the list, with a net millennial migration of 2,525 in 2019. San Antonio (No. 22) showed a net migration of 1,865 millennials.

The top city overall for millennial migration in 2019 was Denver, followed by Seattle.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.