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

 
 

A Houston startup that created a remote monitoring and care platform has raised millions in financing. Image via michealthcare.com

A virtual health care and analytics provider startup has closed its latest round of funding for a total of $27 million in financing.

Medical Informatics Corp. closed a $17 million series B co-led by Maryland-based Catalio Capital Management and California-based Intel Capital. The financing also includes an additional $10 million in debt led by Catalio through Catalio’s structured equity strategy, according to a news release.

“We are excited to have had this round co-led by Catalio and Intel Capital," says Emma Fauss, CEO and co-founder of MIC, in the release. "Catalio brings significant financial and technical resources, while Intel Capital possesses strong operational and industry experience, and we look forward to continuing to leverage both firms’ expertise as we continue to scale.”

MIC created an FDA-cleared virtual care platform, called Sickbay, that gives health care providers and hospitals away to remotely monitor patients in any setting with vendor-neutral real-time medical device integration, workflow automation and standardization.

“We have seen an increased demand for our solution as our clients face significant staffing challenges and are looking for ways to amplify and empower their workforce," Fauss says in the release. "Some of the largest health care systems in the country are standardizing their infrastructure on our Sickbayplatform while consolidating IT spend."

Other participants in the round included new investors TGH Innoventures, Tampa General Hospital’s innovation center and venture fund, and Austin-based Notley — as well as existing investors San Francisco-based DCVC, the Texas Medical Center, and nCourage, a Houston-based investment group.

As a part of the round, two individuals from Catalio will join the board at MIC. Jonathan Blankfein, principal at Catalio will join the board of directors, Diamantis Xylas, head of research at Catalio, will join as board observer.

“Health care systems’ need for high-caliber, cost-saving, data-driven technology is only going to increase, and MIC’s proprietary platform is perfectly positioned to address some of the most critical clinical challenges that health care organizations face,” says Blankfein in the release. “We look forward to continuing to support MIC’s strong team as it continues to deliver better outcomes for health care organizations and patients alike.”

Amid the pandemic and the rising need for remote care technology, MIC scaled rapidly in the past two years. The company will use the funding to continue fueling its growth, including hiring specialized talent — deep product specialists and client engagement teams — to support long-term strategic partnerships.

“One of the main barriers to advanced analytics in health care is the siloing of data and today there is a significant need for a platform to enable flexible, centralized and remote monitoring at scale and on demand,” says Mark Rostick, vice president and senior managing director at Intel Capital, in the release. “Medical Informatics is setting a new standard of health care by removing these data silos for health care providers of all sizes and transforming the way patients are monitored from hospital to home with real-time AI.”

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