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

 
 

Moonflower Farms grows lettuce hydroponically. Courtesy of Moonflower Farms

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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