research roundup

University of Houston researchers studying COVID-19 prevention and treatment

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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Building Houston

 
 

New partnership chair, Amy Chonis, gave her address at the 2021 GHP Annual Meeting. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

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